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Solar farm hearing draws a crowd

Source: 
The Yadkin Ripple

Despite social distancing guidelines it was a packed house on Monday for an evidentiary hearing regarding a proposed solar farm on Shady Grove Church Road near the Smithtown community. The Board of Adjustments moved the meeting from its usual location in the Planning Building to the Commissioners Chambers but it was still not enough room for the crowd and many had to stand in the doorway to hear the proceedings.

A conditional use permit for a 22-megawatt 285-acre solar farm on parcels of land totaling around 370.5 acres has been applied for by Two Hearted Solar, LLC, Mickey and Hilda Smitherman, Shady Grove Partners LLC, Evan and Tina Williams, Jackie and Betsy Williams, Ruth Matthews and Billy Miller. Tom Terrell, an attorney representing applicants, explained that the solar farm is a joint venture of Silver Creek Energy and Pine Gate Renewables. Terrell said Pine Gate Renewables is one of the largest solar companies in the Southeast and would be the longtime owner and operator of the proposed facility.

Evan Williams, one of the farmers that is part of the group hoping to lease their land for the solar farm, spoke briefly during the hearing. Williams explained that his family had been in Yadkin County for generations. He said he returned from a job in Winston-Salem to help on the family farm when his father became ill. He said he stayed and continued to work the farm after his father’s death, operating chicken houses and raising corn and soybeans.

“I can tell you that farming is not easy but it is a good way to live,” said Williams. “You can go broke just as fast you can make a good living. Just a few bad years of weather and bad markets and you can go under.

Williams described the ongoing costs of farming such as replacing outdated equipment needed for his chicken houses.

“Most of you know that very few farmers invest in just one crop. Most of us try to diversify our income and work day and night to try to make it work. The solar farms you see popping up all over the country help farmers like me diversity our income. It makes it possible for people like me, and our neighbors, to keep land in our families and continue to farm,” Williams said.

Also speaking on behalf of the proposed solar farm project were multiple experts who gave detailed presentations on the possible effects of neighboring property values, environmental and health concerns.

Licensed Civil Engineer John Barefoot spoke about the proposed preliminary site design of the project and steps that would be taken to be in line with storm draining and erosion control measures. Board Chairman Richard Foster questioned Barefoot on the topography of the site and if it was conducive to having solar panels installed. Barefoot explained that the full design for the project would not be completed until the permit was approved. He did say that he had worked on projects in Western North Carolina with “more aggressive terrain” than that of the proposed Shady Grove site. During his presentation Barefoot also noted that the solar panels of the proposed site would rotate during the day, tracking the sun, and would reset facing east in the evening.

Nathan Tidd, a landscape architect and engineer, spoke to the visual barrier of trees that would be planted surrounding the site. Tidd explained that the county standard was a three foot buffer with a minimum eight foot high opaque screening. The proposal presented for the Shady Grove site would exceed the requirement with a proposed 20 foot wide buffer of three rows of evergreen trees to block the view of the solar panels from neighboring residences. Tidd said that some varieties of evergreens such as the American Holly can grow to 25 feet at maturity and Terrell amended the proposal to say they would ensure that at least one of the three rows of buffer trees would be a variety that can grow to 20 to 25 feet.

The decommissioning process of the solar farm was discussed and the applicants agreed to a $50,000 bond towards future removal of the equipment on site at such time it was no longer in operation.

Tommy Cleveland, a mechanical engineer, spoke to the health and safety concerns of the solar industry. He said essentially that there are no health or safety issues to the surrounding community from such a solar farm. He went into great detail of the construction of solar panels during his presentation.

“It is well understood and people really agree that it’s a clean energy technology that the electricity it’s producing means that coal and natural gas in the general region are not being used,” Cleveland said. “So right there you are cutting out emissions that are going to soil, air and water.”

Foster asked Cleveland about the cost of running such a solar farm and Cleveland said it is now cheaper than other traditional energy producing plants.

“Solar costs have dropped so dramatically in the last ten years it’s now cheaper than producing with coal or natural gas,” explained Cleveland. “Projects this size and larger tend to be cheaper than operating coal plants, even if you considered the coal plant already paid for and just looked at the ongoing costs. It’s now the cheapest new source of electricity you can put on the grid.”

Richard Kirkland, a land appraiser, addressed the issue of land values on properties adjacent to solar farms. Kirkland said he looked at 33 different home sales near other larger and smaller solar farms in North Carolina and found no impact on the land value. He said the difference in value could be plus or minus five percent but that is typical of any real estate sale.

“Plus or minus five percent is really sort of the standard static you’d find in any real estate transaction,” said Kirkland. “You can have two identical homes next to each other in the same subdivision and they’ll sell for slightly different prices.”

Sean Andersen, representing Pine Gate Renewables, spoke to the board as well as a former city planner Reynolds Neely who spoke to the solar farm being in harmony with the land use plan for the area.

Shady Grove Church Road residents Dale Poindexter and Shawn Summerfield said they wished to speak in opposition to the proposed solar farm and Foster asked that they prepare to present their evidence at the next Board of Adjustments meeting on Oct. 12. Summerfield has been circulating a petition in person and online for those opposed to the solar farm project.

Kitsey Burns Harrison may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter and Instagram @RippleReporterK.

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