A pending ordinance amendment would strike solar farms from a zoning classification in which a controversial one is currently being planned.
It appears, however, that Cypress Creek Renewables and Pine Gate Development will gain site plan approval for the 30-acre solar farm they are planning for about 46 acres between South Wakefield Street and South Arendell Avenue before any changes take effect.
“(The developers) knew that text amendment was coming, because we’re looking at it as part of our (Unified Development Ordinance) as well,” Planning Director Mark Hetrick said. “They submitted initial reviews and will be resubmitting their site plans once they receive final approval from Wake County and N.C. DOT. They’ve already addressed comments from (Zebulon’s Technical Review Committee).”
Hetrick on Nov. 15 heard feedback from the Town Board on a draft of the reworked ordinance, which he said should go to a public hearing in December or January.
The current ordinance allows for solar farms as a general use in the type of residential zoning (R-13) that exists on the land that family members of Elizabeth Horton intend to lease for 20 years for a solar farm. Commissioners in June approved a request by the developers to rezone a 5.5-acre parcel from the higher-density residential classification of R-10, where solar farms are not allowed, to R-13, enabling the parcel to be included in the solar farm project.
But under proposed ordinance changes, solar farms would not be permitted by any means in areas zoned R-13. They would only be allowed in even lower-density residential classifications (R-20, RMH-20, R-30, RMH-30) and in areas zoned light and heavy industrial, and only by way of a special use permit.
Concerns led to changes
Hetrick acknowledged that pushback by residents opposed to the rezoning request was taken into consideration as town staff reviewed the existing solar farm ordinance.
“I think it raised some questions as to what districts (solar farms) should and shouldn’t be allowed in and also raised questions about the types of permitting we should be requiring for these types of land uses,” Hetrick said. “It certainly allowed us the opportunity to look at this further and see some of the sections of the existing ordinance that needed to be addressed.”
John and Jeanne Craig, whose South Arendell Avenue property backs up to the now-rezoned parcel, persistently voiced concerns about solar farms after developers held an initial meeting with the public in January. Most of the Craigs’ concerns revolved around buffers and the prospect of a solar farm being visible from their back yard.
Solar farms were only one of many land uses town leaders had to consider in the rezoning request. With solar farms being a general use in R-13, rather than a special use, the Craigs were limited in making their case.
“As far as community and adjoining property owner input and (town leaders’) opportunity to review it more thoroughly, that wouldn’t be required as a general use but would as a special use,” Hetrick said. “I know the community wanted to turn it into a special use (hearing), but we as a staff and a board had to look at all the allowable uses in the zoning (the developers) wanted to turn the land into. It’s more of a legislative process for the rezoning that doesn’t get into the requirements of a quasi-judicial hearing, which is more of a site-specific development plan.”
The underlying reason, however, for staff’s proposal to remove solar farms from R-13 is more objective.
That designation is given to residential parcels with a minimum of 13,000 square feet, or about a third of an acre. Under current town rules, solar farms can only be located on land of 10 or more acres in size.
Hetrick said only a handful of larger, farming-type parcels in town like the Hortons’ are labeled R-13, and that he doesn’t know all the history on how those designations came to be. But the designations could change, he said, as the town forms a UDO over the next year.
“With a lot of the R-13 in town, we were limited in even having appropriately-sized parcels for a solar farm,” Hetrick said.