After a month-long study that resulted in a 47-page Planning Department report, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners wound up back where it started and authorized a new solar farm that a property owner requested.
The board last week approved the application by a 3-2 vote, with chairman Tommy Thompson joining commissioners Mike Edney and Charlie Messer in favor. Commissioners Bill O'Connor and Larry Young, who voted no, favored stricter rules. Young said he wanted to restrict the size of solar farms to five acres while O'Connor, aside from objecting to government subsidy of solar energy development, wanted a more stringent approval procedure requiring sworn testimony and public hearings.
"We can't ignore the fact of Solyndra," he said. "Five-hundred million dollars was dumped into a company that was supposed to be the poster child for the solar industry and it went bankrupt in six months."
He also wanted stricter regulations including a government-mandated herbicide inspection that the property paid for by the landowner.
"I'm very disturbed by the idea that we're going to allow this," he said as he and Young lost the vote. "In essence we're acting as handmaidens for a bailout.... The government cannot be the backstop of last resort for property owners who would like some sort of support."
Thompson, Edney and Messer all said the restrictions favored by O'Connor and Young were too onerous. They also brushed aside all the recommendations that the county Planning Department spent four weeks assembling, producing a hefty report and PowerPoint presentation about definitions, special use permits, setbacks, maintenance, vinyl coated fencing and Zoning Board of Adjustment hearings. County Planner Anthony Starr, who visited solar farms in Lexington and Shelby, placed five options before the commissioners. By the split vote, they took the first, approving the text amendment originally presented on March 3.
"I think putting more restrictions on landowners is what we don't need in this economy today," Messer said.
Edney also objected to the complicated permitting process Starr submitted as one of the options. "I think the special-use proposal is burdensome and expensive," he said.
The vote meant that Marcia and Tom Pace of Edneyville can move forward with their plans to lease their land for solar panels.
The debate and the outcome exhibited an unusual political posture for O'Connor and Young, who cast themselves as pro-business conservatives solidly opposed to government regulation and advocates of property rights and unfettered enterprise.
During the public comment time at the top of the meeting, eight people spoke in favor of allowing solar panels in the county with minimal regulation, appealing to the board to help keep farms economically viable and help legacy farm families preserve their farmland and apple orchards.
Barbara Hill White told the board she grew up on the family farm on St. Paul's Road behind the old Edneyville High School, which is now Western North Carolina Justice Academy. She said she saw apple orchards and nature. "Now I see a burned out a packing house, I see burned out mobile homes and I also see a firing range," she said. "I don't think solar panels are going to cause scarring on the land."
Richard Freudenberger said that solar panels not only will provide a much needed source of alternative energy but will be compatible with the mountains.
"Smaller facilities of 15 acres or so are in line with our topography," he said. "Larger ones require a relatively flat, large piece of land. The risk of an ugly huge facility is probably not that great."
Danny Barnwell, a farmer and landowner, also urged commissioners to approve the application, and back off from the more stringent rules favored by O'Connor and Young.
Starr, the county planner, said he had not added up the total hours he and his staff spent on the detailed report but said the work was not a waste of money.
"The way I look at it, while the commissioners didn't act on any of the additional options, I think the additional information allowed them to bring the issue into focus and make an informed decision," he said. "I think it's important for the board to at least look at the options to respond to some of the issues that commissioners and the public raised in the public hearing.... I don't feel like it was a waste and I spent a lot of time doing it."
"I'm aware of at least 6 to 8 of these sites that are being considered by solar developers. Most of these sites are going to be 10 to 20 acres," Starr said.
A report by Henderson County Tax Assessor Stan Duncan showed that a solar farm covering half of a 20-acre parcel would result in a real property appreciation. The appraisal could rise from $170,000 to either $335,000 or $485,000, depending on where the solar panels were sited.
John Green of Innovative Energy Solutions said his company should be able to install the solar panels soon on the Pace's land in Edneyville.
"We're ready to put solar farms in," he said. "This is really the only county where we've dealt with any opposition to solar. We're kind of befuddled."
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