Top 10 of 2017: Beaufort County halts new construction of solar farms

Published 10:06 am Friday, December 29, 2017


Solar farms got a hard look in Beaufort County in 2017; in 2018, that study will be in even more depth.

A grassroots movement to protect farmland and an 80-year-old Terra Ceia school resulted in the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners putting a halt to the construction of solar farms for a year while commissioners revisit and likely rewrite county ordinances determining how and where solar farms can be built.

The issue arose in the public eye in May, when the North Carolina Utilities Commission held a public hearing at the Beaufort County Courthouse, in response to Wilkinson Solar, LLC’s application to build a 600-acre, 74-megawatt solar farm on Terra Ceia Road. Plenty of people spoke at the hearing and attended the prayer vigil that preceded it outside the courthouse, letting it be known that there was staunch opposition to the huge facility being built next to Terra Ceia Christian School. Many claimed a solar farm next to the school presented potential health risks to students, teachers and others at the school. They also said the solar farm would take rich, fertile farmland out of production and likely result in the school’s enrollment dropping. It would ultimately lead to an economic loss for Beaufort County in agricultural revenue, tax dollars and land, as no one knows what the land would look like when the company pulled after its 25-year lease, others pointed out.

By June, supporters of Terra Ceia School and neighbors of the proposed project turned out en force at the Board of Commissioners meeting, this time to request the county put a moratorium on all construction of solar farms.

“Our children and our heritage have a right to your protection,” Jeanne VanStaalduinen, a Terra Ceia Christian School teacher said at the time, while Herb May questioned the “economics of using prime farmland for a solar facility” and asked commissioners to weigh the potential loss of 25 jobs should the school close against the one to three people that would be employed by the facility.

“I don’t see where the county benefits from this at all,” May said. “I’m not against solar energy. I am opposed to this location.”

Commissioners pointed out that the Wilkinson Solar farm was a done deal — any moratorium would only be applicable for new requests and encouraged concerned parties to continue talks with Wilkinson representatives to find solutions to potential problems such as setbacks from the school.

In July, one of the landowners, whose husband leased the land to Wilkinson Solar prior to his death in late 2016, was looking to get out of the contract. The landowner’s attorney, Mario Perez, said the entire contract was suspect considering it had been notarized by a Lee County notary public who was not present when it was signed.

In August, commissioners were seriously considering a moratorium on solar farm construction.

“This is not something to be taken lightly or entered into quickly,” county Manager Brian Alligood told commissioners during the August regular meeting. “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. Because of this, the county currently loses out on $545,297 in property taxes each year, a number that would exceed $1 million once the Wilkinson Solar project is operational.

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

Finally, in November, four of the seven commissioners voted to enact a one-year moratorium after two public hearings on the subject. Commissioners Ed Booth, Gary Brinn and Ron Buzzeo, initially assigned to a committee to study whether a moratorium was appropriate, will now to study the existing setback restrictions from structures and property lines in the current county ordinance and how they may be changed, as well as meet with local representation on the state level to negotiate how counties are allowed to tax solar farms.