County to pursue solar farm moratorium

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The Person County Board of Commissioners will pursue a moratorium on solar farms following an update at its meeting Tuesday morning.

Commissioners will hold the required public hearing at their next scheduled meeting March 9. That meeting will also be a recognition of Local Government Day and held in the county auditorium at 9 a.m.

The commissioners’ action comes as the county is the focus of a proposed solar farm in Hurdle Mills along the east and west sides of Hurdle Mills Road, generally north and south of the intersection of Hurdle Mills Road and Rogers-Whitfield Road.

The solar facility was initially approved Oct. 2, 2018, but an amendment submitted Oct. 23, 2019, stated that the facility would encompass three more tax parcels, taking the total size to 797.57 acres.

However, as of Jan. 31, Hurdle Mills Solar LLC has requested to withdraw its amended request, taking the facility’s size back down to the original size of 353.76 acres.

Several residents spoke during the meeting’s informal comment period in opposition to the solar farm’s location in Hurdle Mills with one also presenting a petition with 450 signatures.

County Planning Director Lori Oakley updated the board on the county’s current solar farm regulations at the request of County Manager Heidi York.

“I do realize there has been a lot of talk in the community about the solar project in Hurdle Mills,” Oakley said. “I would like to state that no one has contacted the planning staff.”

Oakley said the facilities are regulated based on county zoning and distance to residential development. She said solar farms are considered light industrial and are prohibited in the county’s residential district. Solar farms are approved at the county staff level unless they are located within 250 feet of a residential structure as measured from home to panel. If the distance is within 250 feet, the facility must get a special use permit to be approved by the county Planning Board and commissioners. The county also requires 50-foot vegetated or structural buffers when adjacent or across from residential uses, a decommissioning plan and performance guarantee equal to 1.25 times the estimated decommissioning cost as determined by a licensed engineer. Oakley said there are also additional regulations if the facility is to be located within a watershed.

Oakley said the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government provides considerations for further regulating solar farms, which include possible regulations on type of solar array (accessory use versus principal use), quasi-judicial versus staff review, height and setback requirements, screening and fencing requirements and additional regulations for glare standards.

Oakley also presented a template solar energy ordinance from the North Carolina Solar Center and North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association that provides additional guidance on definitions of solar energy systems based on size, which types are allowed at a staff level, height and setback restrictions and aviation notification and evaluation of solar glare hazard among other topics.

“So, in summary, there are additional regulations that could be added to the Person County Planning Ordinance to regulate solar farms,” Oakley said.

Oakley recommended a freestanding solar energy ordinance if the board wanted to make a large amendment, otherwise additional text could be added to the current zoning ordinance.

A freestanding ordinance would take 60-90 days before it would appear on a planning board agenda, Oakley said.

After a discussion on moratorium lengths, County Attorney Ron Aycock said a company could have a claim to vested rights if “some stage of a process has occurred” and the county’s moratorium would need to be in place before an application to the county has been made.

Aycock recommended the county look at a longer moratorium to ensure that the county would have enough time to work on exactly what it wants.

Commissioner Jimmy Clayton made a motion to set a public hearing to discuss a moratorium on solar farms for more than 61 days.

Oakley requested further guidance on what the new ordinance will entail at the board’s next meeting.

Chairman Ray Jeffers suggested that commissioners seek input from the Economic Development Commission, Person County Airport and county Farm Bureau board.

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