Towns and counties across North Carolina find themselves treading in very unfamiliar waters these days as they deal with requests to locate solar farms in their communities. The operations routinely draw opposition from neighbors who worry about a raft of potential problems from exposure to electrical currents to unattractive sightlines to the devaluation of neighboring properties.
In Zebulon, town officials have already rejected one request for a solar operation in the face of vehement opposition. Now they are faced with another unique situation in which two parcels of land are already zoned to allow a solar farm, though developers are also asking to rezone a third parcel to give them a little bit more space to erect and operate their solar operation.
That land is much closer to the town’s core than the first parcel and it is bordered by neighboring property owners who live on their land.
If the town rejects the rezoning request, the developers could still construct their solar farm on the other two parcels without any additional permissions from the town for that land use.
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Zebulon, like any other community with zoning rules, has what is called a table of permitted uses. Each zoning designation has a list of uses that can take place on that particular piece of property. Generally speaking, industrial zoning allows for factories and manufacturing kinds of uses, commercial zoning allows for commercial uses such as stores shops and residential zoning allows for homes.
When Zebulon was faced with the first solar farm request, town officials realized they did not have a zoning designation that allowed for solar farms. So they changed the list of permitted uses and agreed that solar farms would be allowed in certain residential areas – most notably areas where housing was less dense.
As we are seeing now, even that designation draws concerns from neighboring residents.
And as if the issue weren’t complicated enough, now comes news that legislators want to set new, more stringent limitations on where solar farms can locate. Among the proposals they are considering is one that would disallow solar farms on any land unless it can be located a mile and a half away from the nearest property. In Wake County, there is no such place, unless it’s in the middle of Umstead State Park.
Zebulon has now held a public hearing on the current request and the developers have met formally with neighbors on two occasions.
We think there are enough questions and enough uncertainty about the issue of locating solar farms that town commissioners would be well advised to disapprove of this zoning and allow the issue to settle out in the General Assembly. Then town officials should revisit their list of permitted uses and ask themselves if they got it right when they allowed for such operations to be located in a residential area in the first place.