The public will have another chance to weigh in on proposed solar-farm rules for Johnston County.
Last week, Planning Director Berry Gray presented County Commissioners seven rules to regulate solar-farm development. The board had no problem with six of the suggested rules but spent 25 minutes talking about the seventh. The meeting also included a public hearing, but only one person showed up to share his opinions.
Ultimately, commissioners agreed to continue the discussion in September to get more information about the controversial rule and to give the public another chance to speak.
If you’re riding by there and you can’t see it, it doesn’t matter what’s over there, whether it’s tobacco, corn or a solar farm.
David Turnage of Smithfield
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Here are the proposed rules that proved popular with the board:
▪ Solar panels would be set back 150 feet from all property lines. The current requirement is 20 feet. The county has seen a lot of solar development near residential areas, Gray said, and the increased setback is consistent with other industrial uses.
▪ Solar panels could be no more than 12 feet tall. The current ordinance allows up to 40 feet, Gray said, and no one has asked to build panels anywhere close to that.
▪ Ground-mounted equipment and accessory buildings would also be set back 150 feet from neighboring property lines.
▪ Sites would have to be enclosed by a six-foot-tall fence topped with barbwire. That’s something solar developers are already doing, Gray said, and staff decided to make it a requirement.
▪ Sites would have to have a landscaping buffer of 10 large evergreen trees and 10 evergreen shrubs every 100 feet around a solar farm. Trees would have to be at least four feet tall when planted and six feet tall if the property line bordered houses. That’s what commissioners have been requiring, Gray said, but it was not written into the county’s ordinances.
▪ Solar farms would have to be decommissioned and cleaned up in 180 days if the county determined the site was no longer being operated, maintained or used in an operable state of repair.
The rule that proved controversial would add extra teeth to that final regulation.
In order to guarantee solar farms are properly decommissioned, Gray suggested the county require up-front that companies put enough cash in escrow to clean up the site. Much like a security deposit for an apartment, the county would release that cash once the company properly decommissioned its farm. If the company did not clean up the site, the county would use the funds to do the work itself.
Gray said Johnston takes a similar requirement to ensure subdivision developers pave their streets.
Unlike an apartment security deposit, the money would be held 20 or so years, and the amount could be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Gray said the proposal had proven unpopular with solar companies, and Commissioner Ted Godwin questioned whether it would end solar development in Johnston altogether.
“If this piece of it means that, going forward, (solar farms) are no longer viable, is that our intent?” he said. “If we feel like we’ve got them up to here now, and we’re getting uncomfortable with it, does this effectively shut it off.”
Commissioner Chad Stewart said that was not his goal.
Making the matter more difficult, several commissioners noted that it’s impossible to know how much it will cost to clean up a solar farm in 20 years. For one thing, Stewart said, the county cannot forecast how much money the materials used in solar panels will fetch at a scrap yard in 2035.
To get a ballpark idea, Commissioner Allen Mims told Gray to have an engineer estimate the present per-acre cost to decommission a solar farm.
Regardless of what the county decides, Chairman Tony Braswell said, Johnston’s towns could allow development with fewer restrictions inside their planning jurisdictions.
The only public comment came from David Turnage of Smithfield, who said he thought the board was on the right track with its increased setback and buffering requirements.
“If you’re riding by there and you can’t see it, it doesn’t matter what’s over there, whether it’s tobacco, corn or a solar farm,” he said. “But if you can see it, it’ll just make you mad.”