Johnston County Commissioners will hold a public hearing Monday evening on a proposal to tighten rules governing solar farms.
Among other things, the proposal would require greater setbacks from neighboring properties, and it would require solar farm owners to remove the arrays if they go out of use.
At recent county commissioner meetings, neighbors have voiced opposition to what they see as lax rules for solar farms, which are proliferating in Johnston. The current rules, for example, require a setback of 20 feet from neighboring properties. The proposed change would increase the setback to 150 feet. Also, current rules limit the height of solar arrays to 40 feet. The proposed change would lower that limit to 12 feet.
In another proposed change, a solar farm developer would have to enclose the array with 10 evergreen trees and 10 evergreen shrubs every 100 linear feet. The new rules would also require a 6-foot-tall barbed-wire fence.
In the past year, companies have sought approval to build numerous solar farms in rural Johnston, including a 130-acre solar farm near Micro that will be the county’s largest. Last month alone, County Commissioners approved nine solar farms. The county’s towns are also receiving and approving solar farm requests.
County Planning Director Berry Gray said the proposed rule changes would help solar farms be more compatible with their neighbors.
Elton Evans is among the Johnstonians who have expressed worries about solar farms. He will soon live within a few hundred feet of a solar farm, and he worries about the safety of his 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren around the industrial complex.
“Johnston County is a farm community, and I hate to see it turn into solar farms,” he said in July. “And that’s eventually what we’re going to have.”
Tim Whitley lives on the opposite end of the solar farm that will soon be Evans’ neighbor. He doesn’t look forward to the months of disruption that construction of the solar farm will cause.
“I moved down there a long time ago for peace and quiet, and if this goes in, it will be a year and a half of chaos,” Whitley said.
A state law that forces utilities to buy electricity from solar farms helps explain the increase in farms across Johnston County. Also, companies are rushing to build projects before a North Carolina tax credit expires at the end of this year.
Solar farms in Cleveland?
There are currently no solar farms in the Cleveland community, but Gray said he wouldn’t rule it out in the future. Gray said solar farm companies tend to look for larger tracts of undeveloped land. Most of the time that includes flat farm land, and land which doesn’t require much grading.
Although the Cleveland community no longer has much of that, Gray said, with the boom in houses, there are still some potential sites for it.
“It’s possible,” he said. “(The Cleveland community) does have some farmland but not as much as you’ll find in the eastern part of Johnston County.”
When asked whether solar farms are something the county welcomes, Gray said “we do when it’s in an area that it’s compatible.”
“The main impact is aesthetics,” Gray said. “And how it will look with neighbors. We’ve always recommended buffers to help address those type of issues.”
Monday night’s meeting will be at 6 p.m. in the Commissioners’ Room at the Johnston County Courthouse Annex in Smithfield.
Staff writer John Hamlin contributed to this report