County to move forward with solar farm moratorium

Published 8:04 pm Friday, August 11, 2017

A unanimous vote has set the county on the path for a moratorium on solar farm construction.

At Monday night’s meeting, Beaufort County commissioners instructed county staff to begin moving forward on a moratorium, a process that could take several months to enact, and would not affect any solar farm project currently under construction, only new ones moving forward, according to county attorney David Francisco.

The Board’s order stems from the plan for a 600-acre solar farm adjacent to Terra Ceia Christian School, to which there has been widespread objection, as well as a growing realization that the county’s existing solar farm ordinance may require revision. But the proposed two-year moratorium would allow time to delve into, and resolve, issues governed by higher offices that affect how counties across the state are impacted by solar development.

“This is not something to be taken lightly or entered into quickly,” said county Manager Brian Alligood. “You need to make sure that you follow the rules, and make sure that you will stand judicial scrutiny. Because it will be challenged, and it will be looked at.”

Alligood explained to commissioners that the county, by law, must meet four requirements in order to instate a moratorium: a clear statement of the problems or conditions requiring a moratorium and what other possible resolutions were explored but deemed inadequate; they must show how the moratorium will address the issues at stake; provide a determined end date for the moratorium along with an explanation of why the amount of time is needed to resolve the issues; and a statement describing what will be done to resolve the issues.

Board Chairman Frankie Waters, who proposed the moratorium, said it would allow the county time to lobby state legislators about some important issues surrounding solar development, including who’s taking on the cost of cleanup of a solar site once a site has run its course. Another matter is the state’s restrictions on counties to tax solar farms: state law says that counties can only tax solar farms at 20 percent, a detail that Commissioner Hood Richardson said does not allow counties to tax fairly.

Waters believes that the 65 million consumers across 13 states who use solar energy produced in North Carolina counties should share the potential cost of solar site cleanup — whether that’s toxic soil or unsightly land or equipment. He said the time to address these issues with the state is now.

“If we do nothing, 25 years from now, the county could end up with real estate that would have zero tax value and that’s not good,” Waters said.

Alligood laid out the steps needed to put a moratorium in place: consulting with the county attorney to put together a draft, then passing the draft through the University of North Carolina School of Government and others to determine its validity before bringing it back to commissioners for approval. A public hearing will then be held before the moratorium can be enacted.

During the process, commissioners will also be taking a look at the county’s solar farm ordinance and determining what changes should be made.

The existing ordinance calls for a setback of 50 feet from a property line and 100 feet from a structure. Waters said he’d like to see a minimum requirement of 300 feet from a property line and 1,000 feet from a building. He also said he doesn’t believe it’s appropriate to have solar farm within a mile of a school.

Commissioners Ed Booth, Gary Brinn and Ron Buzzeo have been named to the committee exploring the ordinance’s modification.