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Commissioners give solar farm near airport thumbs up on second try

After giving it a second shot, Rowan County Commissioners on Monday approved an $8.5 million solar farm near the airport.

First considered during a March meeting, the solar farm would sit on a tract of land adjacent to Interstate 85 and between Peeler and Webb roads. It sits within the Rowan County Airport’s southern approach. The most significant concern among commissioners in March was whether adding solar panels to the site would create an unsafe glare for incoming pilots. Developers countered that the site and potential glare meets standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration.

During Monday’s meeting, the solar farm developers returned with a survey that extended the study area for potential glare past FAA requirements. Stephen Barrett, a consultant for the project, also questioned why county commissioners hadn’t raised similar concerns about a solar array at Food Lion’s warehouse on Harrison Road. Barrett said glare from the Food Lion solar array, which sits in the airport’s northern approach, is similar to the proposed site.

The updated glare study presented Monday showed that the solar farm would meet FAA requirements.

“We have shown you competent material, substantial evidence, that does not create any material danger,” said attorney Tom Terrell, who is working for the solar farm’s developers. “We are confident we have met the standards for a conditional use permit.”

After about 45 minutes of discussion between commissioners and developers about the solar farm, it was approved unanimously. Commissioners rezoned the site from a special, I-85 designation to one suited for industrial uses. Commissioners also approved a conditional use permit that would allow for the solar farm.

Monday’s approval is the latest in a long line of solar projects in Rowan County. However, it was the first that’s involved significant questions from commissioners, who have routinely approved requests unanimously and quickly.

The newly approved solar farm would consume 30 acres of the I-85 site’s more than 300 acres. The solar farm would be split into two equally sized arrays, and Seven Islands Environmental Solutions, owned by Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, would develop the solar farm.

During Monday’s meeting, Terrell remarked that getting an approval from commissioners “has not been an easy task.” He said the developers have gone “far beyond” what’s required and would be willing to use high-quality solar panels at the Rowan County facility. Barrett said it’s possible the panels could reduce the potential for glare. However, Barrett said he wasn’t able to show any significant decrease on the glare study presented Monday.

County commissioners Chairman Greg Edds was the only board member to speak on the proposal after a public hearing wrapped up. He thanked the developers for their patience. After approval of the project, Edds called a short recess to thank the developers.

In other news from Monday’s meeting:

• Commissioners voted to auction three county-owned properties assessed at a total of more than $2 million.

The properties include an office building at 1236 W. Innes St. that previously housed a division of Social Services, another office building at 165 Mahaley Ave. that also housed a division of Social Services, and a house at 418 South Carolina Ave. in Spencer.

Monday’s vote came with a caveat from Commissioner Craig Pierce. The Board of Commissioners, Pierce said, would approve any bid to purchase the property before a sale is finalized. The contingency would protect against offers that are too low, Pierce said.

R. Giles Moss Auction and Real Estate of Rockwell was retained by Rowan County about a year ago to sell the three properties. Moss recommended an auction after only one offer for $300,000 has been made on any of the properties. It fell through before paperwork could be finalized. Two of the three buildings contain mold and mildew, Moss said.

• Commissioners approved paying some hotel costs for a softball tournament later this year.

From July 21 to 24, Rowan County is scheduled to host a regional softball tournament for the 2016 Little League World Series. It will bring 16 softball teams, coaches, families and tournament officials from a nine state region, according to Convention and Visitor’s Bureau CEO James Meacham. However, hotels must be provided for free to the players, coaches and umpires.

Meacham estimated the county would provide approximately $35,000 to pay for the hotel rooms. However, final costs won’t be known until August. The CVB plans to reimburse Rowan County for the cost by June 30, 2017.

In his letter, Meacham projects that the total economic benefit to Rowan County will be $15 to every $1.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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