Stricter guidelines to direct solar farm construction

Published 10:23 am Friday, November 16, 2018

Beaufort County has a new ordinance regulating the installation of solar energy facilities in the county.

The ordinance was voted in at the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners last meeting, requiring a second vote, as the October vote was not unanimous. The ordinance goes into effect after a yearlong moratorium on new construction of solar facilities, during which a committee was formed to study the existing the county’s existing ordinance and rewrite as needed.

“(The new ordinance) protects the property owner, and it protects the taxpayer of Beaufort County,” said Commissioner Ron Buzzeo, who was one of three commissioners on the committee. “It doesn’t stop anybody from putting a solar energy facility in.”

The ordinance sets more stringent guidelines for the siting, construction, installation and operation of solar energy facilities, including presentation of a maintenance plan and an abandonment and decommissioning plan before a permit to build the facility is issued by county. The decommissioning plan requires facility owners to provide the county a guaranteed way to pay for decommissioning the site, such as a bond or cash that will be placed in escrow.

Another key element of the ordinance is expanded setbacks: the fence securing the facility must be at least 100 feet from all property lines and public rights-of-way; equipment at least 25 feet from the interior fence; and separated by a minimum distance of 300 feet from all residential, commercial and institutional building, barring storage sheds and the like. Neighboring property owners can, however, sign a waiver for most separation requirements.

The moratorium and new ordinance were prompted by public outcry last year regarding a 600-plus-acre solar energy facility slated to be built in Terra Ceia, adjacent to Terra Ceia Christian School. Residents of the area, along with teachers, students and board members of the school repeatedly spoke out against the project at public meetings and commissioners’ regular meetings.

As a result, the ordinance states its purpose is to protect for Beaufort County “the health, safety and general welfare of its citizens, while also avoiding adverse impacts to adjacent land uses and property owners” and “protect and enhance the economic viability and interests of the citizens and residents of Beaufort County who have made substantial financial investments in homes, businesses, and industry in Beaufort County.”

One commissioner believes the extent of the ordinance will create a chilling effect on solar energy facilities built in the county.

“The purpose of this ordinance is to slow down and stop solar facilities,” Commissioner Hood Richardson said.

Richardson said farmers can make five to six times the income leasing land for a solar energy facility than they can farming — the new ordinance will take away the option, whereas the old ordinance was “precisely what we needed.”

Board Chairman Frankie Waters disagreed.

“The reason we’re in this box is because our original ordinance wasn’t strong enough,” Waters said. “At the end of the day, the purpose of this was to try to make it a win-win for all of the community.”