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Solar farms not welcome in every neighborhood

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  • N.C. solar growth

    Registered, but not necessarily built, utility-scale solar photovoltaic systems (1 megawatt or greater)

    20070

    20083

    20095

    20109

    201113

    201278

    Total108

    Sources: N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, N.C. Solar Center


  • Solar ordinance forum

    Central Piedmont Community College’s Center for Sustainability will sponsor a forum on developing a template solar-energy ordinance for North Carolina from 1 to 5 p.m. Friday at Community College’s Harris Conference Center, 3216 CPCC Harris Campus Blvd., Charlotte. Registration information is at http://energync.org/events.



Neighborhood opposition is emerging against some of the big solar farms that are popping up across North Carolina by the dozens.

Three hundred Lincoln County residents flocked to a hearing last month on a solar farm planned to be built near affluent suburbs on Lake Norman. Local boards in Shelby, Robeson County and Laurinburg denied permits for farms this year.

A Duke Energy Renewables project in Beaufort County was the target of one of two challenges of solar farms that led to unusual hearings this year before the N.C. Utilities Commission, which permits larger farms. Permits were granted in both cases.

The scattered complaints aren’t numerous enough to undermine the state’s fast-growing solar industry, which has seemed to defy the economic downturn in becoming the sixth-largest in the nation.

But the objections could slow the industry’s momentum and add new costs to the farms’ development. They’re also one reason solar advocates are crafting the state’s first model ordinance governing solar farm sites.

Silent, grassy and emission-free, rows of dark panels angled toward the sun might seem to be the perfect neighbor.

Some nearby residents, though, are leery of glare or the farms’ electromagnetic field, although experts say the radiation is no higher than that of residential power lines. More often, critics complain the solar farms’ 8-foot-high panels will be eyesores that lower property values.

The Strata Solar project

The 36-acre farm that Strata Solar wants to build in eastern Lincoln County would be surrounded by suburban homes that former county commissioner George Arena, an opponent, says are worth $400 million.

The road bisecting the proposed site leads to pricey Sailview, the Lake Norman community where Arena lives, and to Governor’s Island, one of the lake’s most exclusive developments.

“You’ll see chain link fence and barbed wire” while driving past the farm’s perimeter, Arena said.

Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar is North Carolina’s largest solar developer. Spokesman Blair Schooff said tweaks to site plans are typical of any large development, suggesting it’s likely in Lincoln County, too.

“We’ve had a small minority of our over 50 projects now that have encountered any sort of public resistance,” he said. “For the most part, our success rate is terribly high.”

Strata has gone to court to overturn the denial of a solar project by Laurinburg last April. That same month, Robeson County commissioners denied Strata a permit for a farm in the small town of Rowland, although that decision was later reversed.

Lincoln County commissioners, after the September hearing, granted residents two months to consult appraisers on the farm’s expected impact to property values.

The company says it doesn’t hurt surrounding property. More often, Schooff said, farmers call Strata asking to be part of solar projects.

Local real estate broker Nadine Deason expects property values in and around Sailview to drop more than 20 percent if the solar farm is built. One potential buyer has already pulled out of the community because of the farm, she said, and others crossed it off their lists.

“Everybody loves alternatives to fossil fuel,” she said, “but in the right setting – not in front of your front door.”

For now, the Strata site grows soybeans. Because agricultural uses don’t need county permission, said zoning administrator Randy Hawkins, the owner could build a hog or chicken farm if he wanted.

Consistent standards would help

Lincoln County is not among the 42 N.C. local governments that adopted solar-energy ordinances as the industry quickly expanded. Utility-scale solar farms have soared from none in 2007 to 108 registered systems by the end of 2012. Seventy-eight were registered last year alone.

“There’s so many (farms) going in now that some of them happen to be in places where people live,” said Tommy Cleveland, renewable energy project coordinator at the N.C. Solar Center.

The Solar Center and the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association have held forums statewide – including one to be held in Charlotte on Friday – on a model solar ordinance that recommends setback distances and other siting particulars. A similar template already exists for small wind-energy projects.

With a model in place, local government planners wouldn’t have to start from scratch in regulating the sites, Cleveland said. Consistent standards would also help solar developers.

Joel Olsen of Cornelius-based O2 Energies, which has built five solar farms, said the recommendations will be helpful. But so is attention to local sensitivities.

“What we found is that the more community engagement we do on the front end, the better the community reception,” Olsen said. “By and large, we’ve seen a tremendous response to our projects.”

Dennis Richter, president of Charlotte solar developer Narenco, said he would support an ordinance “only if it helps clarify the issues with the public. I’m not opposed to it, but I’m not looking for another step added to the process, either.”

Catawba County, which hosts eight solar farms, adopted its own solar ordinance in September. It requires buffer zones distancing the farms from surrounding properties – a key step, said senior planner Susan Ballbach.

“Basically it’s a new type of thing, so people are a little skeptical,” she said. “Once they hear how they will operate, the amount of traffic and that sort of thing – they’re more at ease.”

The special-use permits counties commonly grant solar farms – like the one being debated in Lincoln County – certify that the installations won’t hurt public safety or property values, and will suit their surroundings.

But with solar, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. There’s no hard data on the farms’ impact on property values, says the N.C. Department of Revenue’s property tax division. And while some communities take pride in the green ethos solar farms embody, others see out-of-place electric infrastructure.

“I can’t tell someone that you have to think solar is beautiful,” said Michael Fucci of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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