County Commissioners have adopted a set of rules to government solar-farm development in Johnston.
Approved earlier this month, the guidelines mainly aim to prevent the arrays from becoming eyesores to neighboring landowners. To do so, the rules increase setbacks and landscaping buffers required for new sites. Solar-farm development has taken off in the past few years thanks to state and federal subsidies, and Johnston has approved more than a dozen developments in 2015.
The new regulations also aim to ensure companies will disassemble and remove solar panels once their operations end at a given site. Commissioners stopped short, however, of passing an aggressive measure designed to give extra teeth to that rule.
Essentially, that rule would have required developers to give the county a cash security deposit before beginning construction. Under the proposal, a company would have needed to provide Johnston with 125 percent of the estimated cost to clean up a site. That money would have been due up front, and it would have ensured the county could pay to clean up any abandoned sites.
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On the other hand, that rule probably would have marked the end of solar development in Johnston County, Chairman Tony Braswell said.
“If we ask for that kind of cash bond, we are probably going to be out of the solar-farm business,” he said.
It costs $7,000 to $10,000 per acre to clean up a solar farm, said County Planning Director Berry Gray, who developed that estimate after speaking with an engineer and a solar developer. At current market rates, the materials in the solar panels would fetch that much money or more at a scrap yard, Gray said, which makes it less likely a developer would abandon a site.
Another problem with the scrapped rule, Commissioner Jeff Carver said, is that the county does not have similar requirements for other types of development. For instance, he said, the county would not ask for cash up front from a resident who wanted to build a small building for his business.
“Are we going to make him put up some kind of bond because, when he gets old and decrepit, we’re going to have to tear (the building) down?” he said. “No, we’re not.”
Here are the rules the county did adopt:
▪ Solar panels must 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 may be no more than 12 feet tall. The ordinance previously allowed up to 40 feet, Gray said, though no one has asked to build panels anywhere close to that height.
▪ Ground-mounted equipment and accessory buildings must be set back 150 feet from neighboring property lines.
▪ Sites must be enclosed by a six-foot-tall fence topped with barbwire. That’s something solar developers have already been doing, Gray said, and staff decided to make it a requirement.
▪ Sites must have a landscaping buffer of 10 large evergreen trees and 10 evergreen shrubs every 100 feet around a solar farm. Trees must be at least four feet tall when planted and six feet tall if the property line borders houses. That’s what commissioners have been requiring, Gray said, but it was not written into the county’s ordinances.
▪ Solar farms must be decommissioned and cleaned up in 180 days if the county determines a site is no longer being operated, maintained or used in an operable state of repair.