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Planning board gives thumbs up to solar farm

SALISBURY — Here comes the solar energy.

Salisbury Planning Board on Tuesday recommended unanimously that City Council approve a special use permit allowing Strata Solar, the largest solar energy developer in North Carolina and sixth largest in the nation, to build a $10 million solar farm in the 2000 block of Sherrills Ford Road.

The planning board’s endorsement comes on the heels of Rowan County commissioners’ 4-1 nod earlier this month to a solar farm request from Argand Energy for the 1300 block of Redmon Road.

If approved by City Council, Strata will put about 20,000 solar panels, each the size of a piece of plywood, on 37 acres of Randy Reamer’s 200-acre horse farm near the intersection of Sherrills Ford Road and N.C. Highway 150.

“This is something that has been approved in other parts of the county, and the use is something that I’m proud to be associated with,” Reamer said while testifying before the planning board.

Reamer, who is a planning board member, recused himself from the meeting. He testified in favor of the 5 megawatt system along with Strata officials and then left the room during deliberations.

Reamer pointed out that thanks to topography, the solar farm would not be visible from the road “except for a second or two” by motorists on N.C. 150. Otherwise, the solar array would be surrounded by woodlands, and Reamer owns 60 percent of the land that would be adjacent to the renewable energy source.

Strata would use one access road, and after a 90-day construction period, only landscape crews and the occasional maintenance employee would visit the site, said Lance Williams, the company’s site selection manager.

“The visual impact is nil,” Reamer said. “The effect on residential uses nearby is negligible.”

Unlike the Redmon Road solar project, which drew opposition from neighbors, only one person turned out to show concern about the Sherrills Farm Road array.

Bill Owen owns wooded property that would be adjacent to the solar farm and said he was worried about tree removal, watershed issues and other environmental impacts.

A Strata engineer listening to Owen’s concerns changed the company’s proposal on the spot, moving infrastructure that originally would have required cutting down some trees near the property line. With the change, no trees would be removed near Owen’s woodlands.

The planning board included the change in requirements for the special use permit, and Owen seemed satisfied.

Last year, North Carolina was the second largest statewide photovoltaic, or PV, solar market in the United States, despite the near-total lack of a residential market in the state, according to Chapel Hill-based Strata. The company starts construction on a new solar farm like the one proposed for Sherrills Ford Road once a week, Williams said.

So far, Strata has built 45 farms, all on about 40 acres, including two in Davie County. Strata sells the renewable energy to Duke Energy.

In Salisbury’s case, power generated by the farm on Reamer’s property would be fed into the Duke Energy substation near the farm and go back into the grid, said City Planner Catherine Garner, who presented the request to the planning board with Planning and Development Services Manager Preston Mitchell.

At their highest point, the panels could reach 10 feet, Williams said. The farm would have less than 1 percent impervious surface, make no noise, cause no emissions and have no moving parts, he said.

Strata has about 1,000 employees across the state, mostly construction workers. At each project, about 80 percent of the workforce comes from the three-county surrounding area, Williams said.

During the 45-day construction peak, between 50 and 100 construction workers would be on site in Salisbury, he said.

Strata guarantees that in 20 years, its farms will still produce 85 percent of the energy they generate on day one, Williams said. The company expects its farms to operate for about 50 years, he said.

The proposed solar farm would generate not only energy but about $30,000 a year in property tax revenue, Williams said, without a demand for services like water, sewer and schools.

On average, the farm in one year would generate enough energy to power 700 houses, he said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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