Solar farm remains on hold

Published 5:27 pm Tuesday, December 20, 2022

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AHOSKIE – Plans to allow a Charlotte-based company to construct a solar farm within Ahoskie’s corporate limits hit yet another snag here last week.

In a 3-1 vote by the Ahoskie Town Council, a decision to issue a Special Use Permit (SUP) to Solar Green Development, LLC was tabled until the Council’s next regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 10. The motion to table the issue, made by Councilman David Hunt, came with a caveat….to seek “outside legal counsel” to assist the Council in its decision making process.

Hunt was joined by Council members Charles Reynolds, who offered a second, and Roy Sharpe in approving the motion. Councilman Charles Freeman opposed. Councilwoman Linda Blackburn didn’t attend the meeting.

Freeman, earlier in the discussion, had motioned to approve the SUP, requesting assurance that all required procedures will take place. However, his motion died for the lack of a second.

It is not clear as to why Hunt’s motion included a request to seek “outside legal counsel. The Ahoskie Town Council is represented by local attorney Cecelia Jones.

At one point of last week’s discussion, Hunt asked Jones if the law firm she works for – Jones and Carter, P.A. of Ahoskie – represents the landowner where Solar Green Development plans to construct a 55 megawatt facility.

“That’s a question I cannot answer,” Jones replied.

“There is no conflict of interest [with Jones and Carter],” Town Clerk Jennifer Bracy told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald in a phone interview following last week’s meeting. “We have verified that through multiple sources.”

As heard at previous Council meetings regarding the SUP, Hunt expressed concern over wetlands and access easement as well as a map, provided by the company, that showed solar panels within a small portion of the property zoned Heavy Industrial.

The majority of the property – 700 total acres consisting of several contiguous parcels located north of the Memorial Drive and NC 561 East intersection (across the road from Enviva), stretching east/southeast to the intersections of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive at Davis Street and at Monaco Drive – is zoned R-20. That zoning designation allows for a solar farm to be permitted as a special use.

At last week’s meeting, as well as previous ones, Solar Green officials assured Council members that they have met, and in some cases exceeded, all standards as noted within the town’s ordinance pertaining to solar farms. Solar Green attorney Tom Terrell stressed that the SUP only allows the company the right to move forward with the process of applying for numerous other permits.

“We take these standards seriously and have addressed every single one of your standards as we are required to by law,” Terrell said. “You don’t do a construction permit until after you ‘ve gone through the elected body and gotten approval. At that point, the elected body or the planning administrator has legal authority to start looking to see if [the company] has met sedimentation/erosion control requirements, and any other permits, to include being outside of stream buffers, are you sufficiently far from wetlands….all of those permits are done after this [SUP]. The town doesn’t have the authority to issue those until a SUP is issued.”

Bracy noted that the SUP “says whether they can proceed with the project; no work can be done until the Town of Ahoskie approves the other specific work permits.”

“If we as a Council give them permission to start and then we find out when we go to step 2 that they haven’t followed step 1 then we have something to object to,” noted Freeman.

“They [Solar Green] can’t start step 2 until a SUP is granted. They might be derailed in step 2 or 3 completely,” Jones observed.

As to Hunt’s assertion of solar panels within the Heavy Industrial zone portion of the property, Terrell said that was an old map that has been updated to exclude panels there. That area includes a utility easement where power poles and electrical lines may be placed. The company also moved a power pole from a wetlands area to the same utility easement.

“We can’t change where Dominion [Power] has their lines,” stated Praether Cooper of Solar Green Development.

Cooper added that Solar Green is required to coordinate a study by the Army Corps of Engineers who will pinpoint any wetlands within the scope of the project.

“That’s just one of the steps we have to do. All of that doesn’t go anywhere if we can’t have a basic permit to build a solar farm,” Cooper stressed. “We never go into wetlands, period.”

There was a question as to why the Ahoskie Planning Board did not have the opportunity to weigh in on the decision to issue a SUP.

“Per our ordinance, the planning board does not have any say so when it comes to a SUP,” Bracy answered. “That’s been addressed at all our meetings. We have followed our ordinance.”

Hunt noted that his biggest concern is that the original plan for the solar farm has changed.

“We submitted the original plans nearly two years ago,” Cooper said. “Designs change, things changed quite a bit with this project. We submitted an updated plan.”

The issuance of a SUP has been put on hold several times since October 2021. As required by law, all adjoining property owners were notified of the application of the Special Use Permit.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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