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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Pender County is considering a zoning change that clamps down on new solar developments

Solar farms in Brunswick County could face new requirements if approved (Port City Daily photo/FILE)
A zoning text amendment could make it more difficult to build solar farms in Pender County. (file photo)

PENDER COUNTY — On the heels of a unanimous rejection of a gargantuan 2,400-acre solar farm, a proposed change to Pender County zoning rules could stop similar projects in their tracks.

The proposition, which passed the county planning board Tuesday night, would almost completely eliminate new “other electrical power generation” projects in the rural agriculture, residential performance and planned development districts. The changes would also require the county commissioners to sign off on special use permits for the industrial transitional and the general industrial classifications, where solar would normally be allowed by right.

READ MORE: Pender board roundly rejects massive $300M solar project

Justin Brantley, interim planning and community development director, told the board those other means of generating power include solar, wind and tidal power. Traditional fossil fuels, nuclear power and hydroelectric do not fall in the category.

Brantley said the first three districts are not appropriate for the projects and requiring permits for the industrial districts would allow more public input and scrutiny. To get a special use permit, a developer would have to host an information meeting and participate in a public hearing. The commissioners would also have the final say on whether the project conforms to the zoning classification.

Brantley reviewed how each of Pender’s seven neighboring counties handle solar farms, .where they are allowed and whether a special use permit is required varied between each. He pointed out every nearby county, with the exception of New Hanover, have special standards they apply to solar projects, specifically, while Pender does not.

Most require a decommissioning plan, so there is a legal assurance a solar farm would be removed properly if it shut down and Brantley noted the county could consider adding its own stipulations in future. Coastal Pine Solar, the developer commissioners rejected in September unanimously, offered to include a decommissioning plan in its project, even though it was not required by the county. 

If the changes go through, there is one way a developer could get a solar farm in agricultural land: if the county approves a conditional zoning. Basically, commissioners could still allow a solar project in any district they wish as long as the developer complies with stipulations placed on it. Noncompliance can be grounds to revoke special zoning.

The commissioners rejected Coastal Pine’s special use application after a three-hour hearing on the issue. The consensus was the project was too large, posed a flood risk for the community and was not appropriate for the parcel it was planned on.

There were also several mentions the project could impact the health of the soil or leach contaminants into local wells, though experts hired by the developer pushed back on that idea. Thomas Terrell, a lawyer from Greensboro firm Fox Rothschild, said the company was entitled to a permit during the September hearing because it had met all the requirements laid out in the law.

Commissioner Jackie Newton, the most vocal opponent during that hearing, told Port City Daily Wednesday the Coastal Pine project prompted the county to take a look at how it regulates other energy production.

Previous PCD reporting revealed Duke Energy favors larger projects since it was given the authority to choose which projects it will buy power. Duke spokesperson Randy Wheelis told PCD the utility’s preference for big farms is purely the result of the economy of scale and small 25 megawatt farms are a thing of the past.

The county has not been totally hostile to solar farms in the past and has approved multiple projects, though none were half the size of what Coastal Pine was proposing.

“While we support solar farms and wind, and we’re sympathetic that the power companies have a mandate to be carbon neutral by 2050, and we want to help in any way we can, we also have to preserve rural agricultural areas too,” Newton said.

She added the land, which would have been carved out of a larger 6,600-acre parcel of timberlands, was deemed wetlands and not suitable for traditional farming by the state in the 1960s.

“They had designated it suitable for timberlands,” Newton said, “And that’s how the timber companies came into possession of so much timberland.”

The tract is currently home to thousands of pine trees which would have been clear-cut to make way for solar panels if the Coastal Pine project was approved. Newton noted those trees take up a lot of water that could otherwise find its way into streams after extended periods of rain and pose a flood risk.

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, a mature tree absorbs about 10 gallons of water each day per inch of diameter.

“That area is an island that doesn’t flood,” Newton said, adding the land is not suitable for a solar farm, which she labeled as a light industrial use.

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