‘Postage stamp’ solar facility approved in Northampton

Published 2:54 pm Friday, February 10, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

JACKSON – Unlike large solar facility requests that have come before the Northampton County Board of Commissioners in the past, the most recent one under consideration is expected to take up less than three acres of land.

The commissioners held a public hearing for the special use request at their regular meeting on Feb. 6. Because the county’s Code Enforcement Director was unable to attend, County Attorney Scott McKellar presented the information to the board instead.

McKellar explained that the proposed solar facility will be located on a 65-acre parcel of land outside of Pendleton. The solar facility itself, however, will only cover approximately 2.6 acres in total.

That’s in contrast to several solar facility requests that have come before the board in the past, which usually encompass hundreds of acres.

Additionally, this solar facility is planned to be a part of the local electrical co-op.

Ajulo Othow, who represented the project developer, spoke before the board to detail their plans for compliance with the county’s ordinance, including fencing, underground transmission lines, and a decommissioning plan. The special use application for the project was first submitted in 2022.

“Are you limited to the 2.6 acres,” asked Commissioner Ed Martin.

Othow answered yes.

Commissioner Melvetta Broadnax Taylor asked if the farmland on the property will continue to be used simultaneously with the solar facility.

“Yes ma’am,” Othow answered. “This project was actually designed to be small enough – we call it a postage stamp sized project – so that agricultural production could take place alongside the solar energy production.”

Board Chair Charles Tyner called for public comments. The only person who opted to speak was Marshall Cherry, who serves as CEO for Roanoke Electric Cooperative, which is supporting the small solar project.

“I’m really proud to have this project as part of our portfolio,” Cherry said.

He explained that the proposed solar project is one step forward in their longterm goal for net-zero carbon emissions, and that it will be a resource to help power the grid during peak periods and keep the cooperative more resilient during adverse weather events.

“It gives us an opportunity in being flexible in how we utilize the grid,” Cherry concluded.

Without any further discussion, Commissioner Geneva Faulkner motioned to approve the special use request, and Martin seconded. The vote was unanimously in favor among those in attendance. Commissioner Kelvin Edwards was absent from Monday’s meeting.

In July 2021, the Northampton commissioners enacted a moratorium on solar facilities in the county in order to give the Planning Board the opportunity to gather and conduct research about the impact of solar facilities. That moratorium expired in April 2022.

Following the moratorium period, the commissioners approved changes in the county ordinances for solar power generation facilities. That change removed solar facilities from “permitted use” under the zoning ordinance to “special use.” That would mean those wishing to construct a solar facility would have to get approval first before a permit is issued.

The reasoning behind the change included being able to better inform the community about solar facility proposals. A public hearing is required for special use permit approval.

Additionally, the ordinance amendment also added more setback, landscape buffer, and security fencing regulations for solar facilities.