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Hertford County toughens solar farm regulations

WINTON – It appears that new language added to Hertford County’s Zoning Ordinance will address the concerns of local leaders and citizens have regarding solar farms.

In October of last year, the Hertford County Board of Commissioners, after hearing negative comments about the lack of regulations controlling the placement and aesthetics of solar farms, enacted a moratorium on the issuance of building, zoning, and conditional use and/or special use permits for solar farm facility development.

The issues the commissioners wanted to address during the timeframe of the moratorium (which expires June 30, 2021) include consideration of zoning, setbacks, landscaping, fencing, vegetative buffering, insurance requirements, loss of farmland, soil types, aesthetics, impact on agriculture-related businesses in the county, possible decline in adjoining property valuations, environmental effects, evaluation of state and federal regulations, expressed public opinion, the county’s land use plan, and decommissioning plans of solar farms at the end of their life expectancy.

Hertford County Planning Director Sara Turner was on hand at the May 17 meeting of the commissioners to provide the regulation revisions and updates to the county’s Zoning Ordinance as required due to an overhaul of NC General Statute 160-D. That statue was created in July 2019 to consolidate city and county land development zoning regulations.

The effective date was Jan. 1, 2021, but that was changed until July 1 of this year.

As part of that consolidation effort, changes were necessary to the county’s Residential Agriculture zoning district, in particular to define solar farms as an accessory use. The county’s Planning Board reviewed those changes.

“Roof top solar collectors, the ones whose primary purpose is for on-site, personal consumption of electricity, remains as a permitted use as an accessory use,” Turner said. “[The ordinance change] removes solar farm facilities by permitted use in all [zoning] districts and to restrict them to special use by permit only, only in a RA 30 [Residential Agriculture] district.”

Under the new wording, solar farm facilities must meet the following requirements:

Height limitation. Solar collectors, equipment, and structures (excluding electric transmission lines and utility poles) shall not exceed 15 feet in height when ground mounted. Roof-mounted systems are excluded.

Setback requirement. All equipment, fences, enclosures, and structures shall be a 200 feet from all property lines and rights-of-way. A setback of 1,000 feet is required along roads designated as NC Scenic Byways, properties with buildings, structures, sites, objects, or districts on the National Register of Historic Places, NC National Register Advisory Committee Study List, or recommended for submission to the National Register by the NC National Register Advisory Committee, and properties with sites listed by the NC Natural Heritage Program. Solar farms within a projected future transportation corridor shall reserve the right-of-way as deemed appropriate by NCDOT.

Perimeter fence requirement. All solar farms shall have security chain link fencing of a minimum of six feet in height along the entire perimeter of the facility with a locked gate. No Trespassing and High Voltage signs must be posted every 100 feet along the fence. A sign must be affixed to the front gate with the name, contact information, and emergency contact information of the facility.

Landscape buffer requirement. The entire area of the solar farm, outside the fenced area, shall be enclosed with a mixed landscape of native shrubs and native trees whenever the natural forest vegetation does not otherwise continuously obscure the perimeter from adjacent parcels or public roads. Proper vegetation must be native or existing woodlands or a combination of at least 25 feet of fast-growing native shrubs with 100 feet of native evergreens planted at a minimum of five feet in height, not more than eight feet apart. Proper landscape buffers must achieve opaqueness and a minimum height of 10 feet within the first five years of planting. A cleared strip with a minimum width of six feet must be maintained between perimeter fencing and landscape buffers. Failure to maintain proper screening shall constitute a violation.

Abandonment. A solar farm facility that ceases to produce energy on a continuous basis for six months will be considered abandoned unless the system owner provides substantial evidence (updated every six months after 12 months of no energy production) to the Zoning Administrator of the intent to maintain and reinstate the operation of the facility.

The system owner will have 12 months to repair and reopen a facility damaged due to natural disaster.

The application [for a new solar farm] must include decommissioning plans that describe the anticipated life of the facility, the estimated decommissioning cost in current dollars, the method for ensuring funds will be available for decommissioning and restoration, and the anticipated manner in which the facility will be decommissioned and the site restored. Decommissioning includes removal of, but not limited to, solar panels, buildings, cabling, electrical components, and any other associated facilities down to 72 inches below grade, and above grade as described in the approved decommissioning plan. All disturbed earth must be graded and reseeded unless the property owner requests in writing that the access roads or other areas not be restored.

It is the responsibility of the system owner to remove all obsolete or unused systems within six months of cessation of operation. If the system owner fails to remove within this time period, the property owner is responsible for removal within an additional six month period.

Wetlands and riparian zones. Any wetlands and streams shall be identified on the site plan for a solar farm facility. There shall be no disturbance or construction within a 50 foot buffer around the outer boundary of these wetlands and streams.

Power transmission lines shall be located underground when practical.

Increase in intensity of use. Any modification to an existing solar farm facility that causes it to increase in geographic size, numbers of panels, or any other intensity of use will require a new special use permit. Any existing nonconformities will be subject to the new solar farm facility requirements.

At the end of Turner’s presentation, Commissioner Andre Lassiter asked, compared to neighboring counties, how stringent are these proposed revisions?

“We will not be the most stringent, but we will no longer be the least stringent,” Turner responded.

Commissioner John Horton asked for clarification regarding the decommissioning process that may cause some headaches for the property owner in the event the system owner fails to abide by the regulations.

“What if the facility owner just throws their hands up and walks away; then the property owner – the local landowner – is left to clean up someone else’s mess,” Horton said.

Charles “Chuck” Revelle, who serves as legal counsel for the commissioners, said that type of scenario needs to be covered in the contract lease agreement between the solar farm developers and the landowner.

“In the application [for a special use permit], they [solar farm developer] have to provide information on what their decommissioning plans are; the costs of that decommissioning; and the method that they are ensuring that the funds will be there [to decommission the solar farm],” Turner explained. “So, if the Board of Adjustment doesn’t find any of that satisfactory, then it’s their decision not to allow that permit.”

Turner added that all solar farms in the county will be inspected annually to ensure they are in compliance.

“If they are not in compliance, it does constitute a violation, which triggers code enforcement with the penalties spelled out in the ordinance,” she said.

A public hearing on all proposed revisions to the county’s zoning ordinance will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 21. Following the hearing, the commissioners will consider adopting updated 160-D compliant ordinance language and rescinding the solar facility moratorium.

Hertford County is currently the home to 13 solar farms, including one of the largest in the state: a 400,000 panel, 80-Megawatt facility on Joe Holloman Road off NC 11 in the vicinity of Oak Grove Baptist Church.

Combined, the county collects approximately $374,000 in tax revenue annually from the 13 solar farms.

Prior to last October’s adoption of the moratorium there were current contracts/permits in place to construct three additional solar farms in the county, including one along US 158 near Murfreesboro that was 80 percent complete at that particular time.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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