Northampton enacts solar farm moratorium

Published 5:06 pm Friday, July 5, 2024

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JACKSON – Following growing concerns from citizens about local solar facilities, Northampton County’s Board of Commissioners voted to enact a temporary moratorium on new solar farm construction during their meeting on June 27.

An opponent of solar farms displays a sign at the June 27 meeting of the Northampton Commissioners. Staff Photo by Holly Taylor

A public hearing was held at that meeting to gather input from people who were either in favor or against the moratorium proposal.

Board Chair Charles Tyner noted, as he has about previous solar farm discussions, that he doesn’t like how solar facilities take away from farmland, but the board doesn’t have the authority to stop landowners from doing what they want with their properties.

“There is no law on the books in the state of North Carolina that says solar farms cannot be,” he emphasized before the public hearing got underway.

But most of the people who spoke during the hearing – who were mainly from the Gaston area – focused their comments against solar facilities in general, particularly the ones currently under construction in their neighborhoods.

“I am an opponent of solar farms,” stated Ruby Vincent Garner, who expressed concerns over safety, reduction of wildlife habitats, reduction of property values and farmland, pollution, and more.

Sylvia Vincent, who lives in the Voltaire community, also mentioned safety as a big concern, calling the solar panels “dangerous.”

“You continue to allow the installation of these panels without regards to the community’s wellbeing. I’m not speaking of just a few in a field. We are talking about a saturated neighborhood,” Vincent explained.

Other citizens also spoke up in favor of halting the projects surrounding their neighborhood or removing them. And some simply wanted to know more about the whole process involved in approving solar facilities.

Tyner pointed out that if a company applied for a permit from the county’s Planning and Zoning Department to construct a solar facility and met all the requirements, then they are allowed to move forward with their projects. Those permits do not come before the Board of Commissioners.

“Y’all are asking us to do something that we can’t do,” Tyner emphasized. “The law will not allow us to do. Please remember that.”

Commissioner Ed Martin used an example of someone who wants to get a permit to build a shed. Martin noted that the commissioners can’t just say no to building the shed if it meets all the regulations.

Commissioner Kelvin Edwards acknowledged citizen concerns, but noted that a moratorium can only stop new projects from being approved. Anything in progress will be able to continue.

Board Attorney Scott McKellar confirmed to the crowd that, under the Northampton County zoning ordinance, solar farms are a permitted use in agriculture/residential districts.

“The moratorium cannot affect any solar farms that have already been permitted and approved. It’s against the law,” McKellar stated.

Once the public hearing concluded, Commissioner Geneva Faulkner motioned to approve the moratorium, and Martin seconded. The vote was unanimously in favor.

The moratorium will end on June 30, 2025.

According to the moratorium resolution, “further information needs to be obtained and evaluated by both the Northampton County Planning Board and the Northampton County Board of Commissioners involving such things as loss of farmland, soil types, aesthetics, impact on agriculture-related businesses in the county, possible decline in adjoining property valuations, environmental effects, and other matters, in order to fully evaluate the county’s approach to planning in this area and to develop recommendations.”

During the moratorium, the Planning Board can conduct a study of solar farm facility issues, and then recommend to the commissioners what ordinance changes, if any, should be made.

As previously reported by the News Herald, the Northampton Commissioners approved amendments concerning solar farm regulations to the county’s zoning ordinance at their June 3 meeting. Those additions tightened regulations that solar farm developers would have to follow. Part of those new changes included stipulations that decommissioning plans must be recorded in the county’s Register of Deeds office and shall be updated at least every five years or upon ownership change.

Later during the June 27 meeting, Interim Code Enforcement Director Derrick Bennett introduced the board to Reginald Bynum, a representative from the Center for Energy Education (C4EE) which is a nonprofit located in Halifax County.

Bynum said there were a lot of “misunderstandings” about solar energy during the public hearing, and that C4EE had information they could share with the commissioners, which can then in turn be shared with the citizens.

Tyner suggested holding some public forums where citizens can get their questions answered.

Northampton County previously enacted a moratorium on issuing solar farm permits from July 2021 to the end of April 2022.