Solar farm changes on hold

Published 4:03 pm Friday, May 24, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

JACKSON – Two changes to Northampton County’s Zoning Ordinance were considered during the Board of Commissioners meeting on May 20, but only one was approved. The other – which dealt with solar facility restrictions – will remain under consideration for now.

Interim Code Enforcement Director Derrick Bennett presented the proposed changes at a public hearing held during Monday’s meeting. He noted that the county’s Planning Board had given the proposed changes a favorable recommendation at their meeting earlier in the month.

One component of the zoning ordinance amendment was the addition of a new residential zoning category: High-Density Residential District (R-6).

According to the zoning ordinance document, R-6 is “primarily intended to accommodate single-family detached dwellings, two-family dwellings, and multi-family dwellings at relatively high densities where public water, sewer, and other urban services are available. Said districts shall be located within a two-mile radius of an incorporated township jurisdiction. A minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet (except for Townhome lots) is required in the R-6 district.”

Bennett explained that adding this ordinance will be vital for the planned workforce housing project which will be located near Central Elementary School in Jackson. The county received a $3 million grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2022 for the project.

He said the engineers working on the workforce housing project recommended the R-6 district.

Commissioner Kelvin Edwards motioned to approve the ordinance amendment regarding the R-6 district, and Ed Martin provided the second. The vote was unanimously in favor by the commissioners in attendance. Board Chair Charles Tyner was unable to attend Monday’s meeting.

But much of the hour-long discussion during the public hearing centered on the other proposed changes to the ordinance, concerning solar facility regulations.

“It’s a controversial issue. A fairly hot topic. So the Code Enforcement Office is taking a closer look at solar farms as well as the zoning ordinance,” Bennett explained.

The proposed changes include the following new additions:

Prior to construction, all solar generation facilities shall obtain the necessary permits from the Northampton County Code Enforcement Office;

All active solar farms shall obtain a zoning permit and be inspected by a Planning & Zoning Officer or Code Enforcement Officer at least once every three years;

Additional inspections shall be conducted as necessary;

Grass, weeds, and other ground cover must not exceed 12 inches in height at any time;

Decommissioning plans shall be recorded by the applicant in the county’s Register of Deeds office;

Decommissioning plans shall be updated at least every five years or upon ownership change;

And upon abandonment, the county shall notify the responsible party to decommission the site. If they fail to comply, the county may remove equipment, sell any removed materials, initiate judicial proceedings, or take any other enforcement action available.

Bennett noted that the Planning Board also initially considered reducing the current 300-ft setback regulation to 100-ft, but ultimately decided to leave that provision as is.

“The changes that we’ve outlined in the ordinance are actually tighter restrictions,” Bennett stated.

The current solar facility regulations were enacted by the county in May 2022.

Three citizens signed up to speak during the public hearing, and all noted that they lived outside of Gaston, particularly in the Voltaire community. They didn’t speak on the specific proposed changes, but instead expressed their general concerns about the large number of solar facilities being constructed around their homes.

Fahamisha Amkajinaki said she was worried about the future of the land that housed the solar farms, and the changes being made to the area by clear-cutting the trees to make way for the panels. She said she thought the board needed to do more research into the long-term affects of solar facilities.

The next speaker, Sylvia Vincent, announced, “it is a mess in the Voltaire community.”

Vincent said their community wasn’t being treated fairly by being “bombarded” with an influx of solar farms, and that the board should consider the health and safety of their community. Even the proposed changes to the zoning ordinance, she said, would not benefit them.

She referenced remarks that Chairman Tyner made at the previous meeting in which he said there was nothing the board could do to prevent solar farms because that was up to the landowners to decide what to do with their property. She disputed that claim.

“I hope you hear us. Thank you for listening,” she concluded.

Ponce Moody spoke briefly, claiming that any solar farm approvals should be reversed because neighboring property owners weren’t properly notified for a rezoning hearing held in November 2020.

In the subsequent board discussion, Commissioner Edwards noted that the county should have documentation of certified mail that was sent for that meeting. But Bennett also said the Planning Board would look for more ways to ensure all neighboring property owners would be notified in the future.

Vice Chair Geneva Faulkner, who facilitated the meeting in the absence of Tyner, pointed out that there did seem to be an “oversaturation” of solar farms in that area of the county. She asked if they could limit the acreage allowed or put another moratorium in place.

Bennett said other counties have not had success in trying those kinds of restrictions. And County Attorney Scott McKellar said any moratorium would be for a limited time frame.

As previously reported by the News Herald, Northampton County enacted a moratorium on issuing solar farm permits while they conducted more research into the impact of solar facilities. The moratorium began in July 2021 and ended April 2022. The current regulations for solar facilities were enacted after the end of the moratorium.

With more questions from the audience, Vice Chair Faulkner reopened the public hearing to consider their input.

Erica Smith asked for further information about decommissioning plans, and McKellar explained that the plans include bonds or other means that are payable to the county if the solar facility is abandoned. He emphasized that the plans, which are already required under the current ordinance, help protect the county from the costs associated with removal.

Alan Tashima suggested that the board compiles documents that show what regulations were in place before the current ordinance as well as which solar farms were affected by which version of the zoning ordinance.

And Vincent returned to the podium to urge the board once more to put a stop to the solar farms being constructed around the homes in their community.

After closing the public hearing for a second time, the commissioners shared their final thoughts on the subject.

“I am not an expert on solar panels,” said Edwards, who suggested the board seek advice and guidance from experts.

Faulkner suggested another moratorium while they gathered more information, and McKellar said he would begin that process. Faulkner also asked Bennett and his staff to make a list of solar farms in the county and include detailed information about each one.

“We are not going to make a decision tonight,” Faulkner said, noting that they wanted to take time to consider the public input first.