John Craig isn’t as frustrated about what is likely about to happen out his back window so much as how it happened.
Town staff on Nov. 15 proposed an ordinance change that would prohibit solar farms for the residential zoning that runs with the land abutting the back of Craig’s South Arendell Avenue property.
The recommended changes came five months after the Town Board approved a request by developers to rezone the 5.5-acre parcel behind Craig’s property to a zoning classification that currently allows for solar farms, so they could use it as part of a 30-acre solar farm they are planning for about 46 acres between South Wakefield Street and South Arendell Avenue.
But while the developers are on schedule to have site plans finalized for a solar farm before any ordinance changes take effect, Craig says he is most bitter about the way town leaders handled the rezoning despite clear opposition by residents like himself.
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“What got to me was they reclassified this land and if they would have not reclassified it, there would be no solar farm,” Craig said. “From my understanding, they could have changed the rules and said, ‘Well, we’re going to do this now,’ but they chose not to. It’s a bad deal.”
Neighboring residents, Craig included, met with Mayor Bob Matheny and Town Manager Joe Moore after the rezoning had been approved to ask more questions about the process that had taken place and what options they had going forward.
Craig said he was left with the impression that the town had virtually approved the rezoning before the request process began in earnest.
“It has left me very disillusioned with the town government,” Craig said. “I think they looked out for the commercial interest over the citizens’ interest. That was about four-to-five months of my life we went all over the state looking into (solar farms) and putting together information, and it was useless.”
“Then, after it’s all said and done, they realized, ‘Oh, we made a mistake there,’” he said, referring to the pending ordinance amendments.
Matheny said that wasn’t how matters transpired. He said the developers were upfront with the residents and with the town.
“We knew they wanted it as a solar farm, but they did not have to tell us that,” Matheny said. “They chose to tell us that and they did sit down with all the neighbors down there. They got pushback, and I understand that, but I at least give them credit for coming out and being open about the process.”
Since solar farms are allowed as a general use in the zoning assigned to the parcel, the legislative review process didn’t allow the Town Board the option of adding conditions or tweaking the rules specifically for a solar farm. Had solar farms been allowed with a special use permit in the zoning, a quasi-judicial hearing would have given both opponents to the project and the town more opportunity to weigh in.
“A lot of people don’t understand that, under the legislative type of zoning, and they didn’t like it,” Matheny said. “When you’re approving it, you’re approving all the uses, not just a single use. They focused in on – and I understand why they did – just the solar farms. They asked why can’t you have it as a special use hearing, and we’re looking at making that a special use permit requirement.”
Matheny reminded commissioners in June that they were considering all the uses allowed in the requested zoning, not just solar farms, because once approved there’s no guarantee what kind of permitted development will take place on the property.
The Town Board could have prevented the solar farm from extending onto the 5.5-acre parcel, but only by turning back the entire list of new uses that would be allowed in the new zoning.
“The bottom line is, I don’t think the board was generally opposed to that land being used for a solar farm,” Matheny said. “I don’t think they saw it as a bad neighbor.”
Matheny said it would be bad business to try to push the proposed ordinance changes through before the developers gain final site plan approval.
“Generally, my belief is you don’t change the rules in the middle of the game,” he said. “If someone is coming in and playing by the rules and what they’re asking is not egregious, you don’t change the rules on them. That’s a very hazardous path to follow when you do that. The board made their decision. Things change. It’s just the way it is.”
For now, Craig keeps looking off the back of his property, taking note of any activity that takes place.
“I’m just waiting to see what comes out,” he said. “They claim they’re going to have a big setback and do this or that, but who knows. We’ll just see what happens.”