It took little time Monday for members of the Zebulon Planning Board to stamp their approval on a rezoning request for a piece of land where developers have indicated they want to build a solar farm.
The unanimous recommendation now moves on for final consideration by the Board of Commissioners at its June 6 meeting.
The rezoning request is not specifically a request for approval of a solar farm, but it is one of only two uses allowed under the new zoning that were not allowed under the existing zoning. The other is agricultural production.
The Planning Board was well aware solar farms are not currently allowed on the 5.5-acre parcel and would be allowed with a general use permit if the request is approved. Cypress Creek Renewables and Pine Gate Development want to include the parcel as part of a 30-acre solar farm being planned for about 46 acres between South Wakefield Street and South Arendell Avenue.
“We need to make sure we are reviewing whether or not this needs to be rezoned rather than a solar farm,” said Planning Board chairman Darryl Jones.
The developers want the existing residential designation for the 5.5-acre parcel to be changed to match the lower-density residential zoning of the contiguous 41 acres to the south.
When commissioners consider the request, it will essentially be their only opportunity to stand in the way of the solar farm – at least for the 5.5 acres in question. If the request is approved, the developers would only need site plan approval from Zebulon’s Technical Review Committee before they could begin construction.
But as Jones pointed out Monday, the town board won’t be considering whether to allow a solar farm. Commissioners will look at whether or not every permitted use in the requested zoning is in harmony with the town’s plans and the surrounding area.
Giving the green light
The Planning Board had too few members present to make a recommendation following a public hearing on the rezoning request on May 9.
The board’s swift decision Monday came after a refresher by town staff, which proposed approval based on the close proximity of the same residential zoning, land use activity and location.
Vice chairman Kenny Waldroup made it known that he helps manage contracts for two solar farms as assistant public utilities director for the City of Raleigh and that he verified with attorneys his participation in the matter was not a conflict of interest.
“I don’t manage with the provider in question,” Waldroup said after the meeting. “I know it’s a controversial issue. I also know it’s not a conflict of interest, but I know it is better to clear these types of things.”
Waldroup made the motion to approve the request along with a staff-prepared statement outlining how it is consistent with the Zebulon Comprehensive Plan and local ordinances, and how it is reasonable and in the public interest.
“I was comfortable it is an appropriate zoning and if they do come back and chose to install a solar array, I am comfortable it will be in keeping with the neighborhood,” Waldroup said.
Development representatives and family members of landowner Elizabeth Horton, who intend to lease the property for a solar farm for 20 years, were present at the meeting. So were John and Jeanne Craig, whose residence on South Arendell Avenue shares a border with the parcel up for rezoning.
The Craigs initially had fewer concerns about utilizing the two larger, southern parcels for a solar farm. As they researched solar farms over the past several months, however, they came to disapprove of the entire plan developers first shared in January. All the while, the Craigs have adamantly opposed the inclusion of the smaller parcel.
John Craig is dissatisfied with the lack of discussion by the Planning Board before it recommended approval of the request.
“It’s kind of a closed-door approach,” Craig said in a follow-up interview Tuesday. “I thought that was what they were there for, to react to the concerns of the community. It looks to me like we’re just catering to external forces.”
Craig wonders why solar farms are permitted in any residential zoning classification. Approval of the request, he said, stands to spoil development opportunities on the south side of town for decades.
“There’s going to be no houses around here,” Craig said. “We need people around here rather than these mechanical things we seem to be collecting. I just can’t believe that this isn’t being looked at in a broader sense.”