SALISBURY — After a lengthy discussion and a public hearing, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners on Monday night once again extended the moratorium on large solar energy system applications.
Instead of extending the moratorium six months, which commissioners have done already done twice, they only lengthened it by 30 days from April 5 to May 5 as a precautionary measure. The plan is to hold another public hearing during the April 5 meeting and and then adopt the proposed ordinance and land use changes.
The county has been working to formulate new regulations regarding solar energy systems since a moratorium was enacted in October of 2019. Among the proposed changes is a decommissioning plan for defunct systems, screening and setback requirements and a new classification system.
Commissioners nearly adopted the proposed rules on Monday night, but decided to wait until the day the moratorium was previously set to expire in order to iron out a few minor details and feel comfortable with the changes.
Chairman Greg Edds called the proposed rules a “big deal” and said that he didn’t want the commissioners to rush to reach a conclusion.
The decision to delay a vote came after nearly two hours of discussion about the proposed changes. Most of the dialogue surrounded the maximum allowed size of solar energy systems in districts zoned rural agricultural and commercial business and industrial.
At the beginning of the meeting, commissioners expressed their desire to implement an ordinance change that would establish a maximum allowed acreage for solar energy systems on land that could be utilized for agricultural purposes or commercial uses.
Planning Director Ed Muire cautioned commissioners about setting a hard line on maximum acreage. He said the conditional use process — what an applicant would have to go through to gain approval for a large system — would allow for “give and take.”
“I don’t think the goal of this was to eliminate anything,” Muire said. “I think we’re open for business. If somebody wants to submit an application, they come through our process. We evaluate it based on the standards and then the planning board and this board make a decision of approval or not.”
During the public hearing, two executives representing solar energy companies also asked commissioners to refrain from setting a maximum acreage.
Brian Bednar, the founder and CEO of Charlotte-based Birdseye Renewable Energy, asked commissioners not to approve any rules outlawing systems larger than 50 or 100 acres in certain zoning districts.
If that rule was enacted, it would stop his company from installing a solar energy system on a 400-acre tract of land in the Gold Hill area. Bednar said his company has been working on the project for two years and said that it would occupy forested land that isn’t viable for farming.
Bednar asked commissioners to consider allowing flexibility in the application process to not exclude large projects like his that still might be appropriate. Chris Carmody, executive director at Carolinas Clean Energy Business Association, echoed that sentiment and said solar energy system developers “like flexibility.”
After hearing those comments, commissioners discussed adding a 50-acre maximum only as a recommendation in the county’s land use plan instead of making it an ordinance requirement. That would discourage solar energy systems larger than 50 acres, but it wouldn’t outright outlaw them.
In other meeting business:
• Commissioners approved an incentive package request from the Rowan Economic Development Commission for project “ACDC.” The company that will benefit from the incentive package is an advanced manufacturer with an existing operation in Rowan County business that is seeking to expand. The expansion would include a $28 million investment in building and equipment and would create 75 new jobs with an average salary of $44,500. The improvements would be completed by 2022. The incentive package approved by commissioners includes a level one grant, which would have Rowan County return 75% of the company’s paid taxes over a five-year period. During the five incentivized years, Rowan County would collect $814,906 in revenue and provide incentive grants totaling $611,180. Rowan EDC Vice President Scott Shelton said that he expects a decision on the expansion to be made by mid-April.
• Commissioners approved a request from interim Health Director Alyssa Harris for a health education program manager, which will help facilitate and coordinate Healthy Rowan meetings and coordinate evidence-based interventions from the Healthy People, Healthy Carolinas grant program. The position will require no county funding as salary, fringe benefits, and operational costs of the Healthy Rowan program are covered by the Duke Endowment foundation.
• Following a public hearing regarding the extension of a no-wake zone on High Rock Lake at Tamarac Shores Marina, commissioners decided to table a vote on approving an application. The process was initiated as a result of a request from resident Michael Barron who lives on Tamarac Shores Drive. After conducting an investigation on the area, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission decided a no-wake zone is appropriate for an area that is smaller than what Barron has requested. Barron said during the meeting that he was making the request to ensure the “public safety” of families and children who swim near the no wake zone by protecting them from fast moving boats and jet skis.