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With new county solar energy system rules ratified, these are the major changes

SALISBURY — During a brief virtual meeting on Wednesday afternoon, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners officially ratified new rules regarding solar energy systems.

 “I think what we’ve done is fair,” Chairman Greg Edds said. “I think it takes care of those things we’re most concerned about, which is neighborhoods, productive farmland, economic development sites and kind of takes those out of the way, but still gives solar farms an opportunity to come in with either small or large projects where it makes sense.”

After approving changes to both the county’s ordinances and land use plan, commissioners repealed the moratorium on large scale solar energy projects originally implemented in October of 2019 that was extended multiple times.

The commissioner’s actions Wednesday put an end to a lengthy process that included hours of deliberation by both the Planning Board and Board of Commissioners. With the rules now officially adopted, here are some of the major changes:

Classifications for solar energy systems

Residential: Ground-mounted system having a solar collector area of 6,000 square feet or less primarily used to provide or off-set power to a residence on site.

Non-residential: Ground-mounted system that will provide or off-set power to the non-residential operation(s) on site.

Roof-mounted — A system mounted on the roof or wall of a residence, business or accessory structure(s).

Utility scale — A solar energy system that is typically tied to the electric grid to generate power for sale or off-site use and does not qualify as a residential, non- residential or roof-mounted system.

The large solar energy systems, like a system proposed in 2019 that received pushback and prompted the moratorium, will now be classified as utility scale.

Screening requirements

The system area (all of the land within the fenced perimeter) of a utility scale facility located within 300 feet of an existing residence, church or school must install the following:

• A row of trees composed of a mixture of deciduous and evergreen species, 40% of which shall be large maturing trees. All species used shall be between 4- and 6-feet-tall at the time of planting and must create a visual separation. The design shall be submitted for review and installed by a certified member of the NC Landscape Contractors Licensing Board.

• An opaque fence that is a minimum of 6-feet-tall within the required buffer

Setbacks

Setbacks for utility scale systems will now be 100 feet from adjoining property lines and road right of ways.

Size restrictions

The only size restriction imposed on utility scale systems is that it must not exceed 25 acres for applications in an industrial district. The changes to the land use plan, which are listed later in this article, provide guidance for how big systems should be.

Change in application process

The process through which an application for a utility scale solar energy system is considered in rural agricultural and commercial, business and industrial has been changed. Utility scale systems will now have to apply for a conditional district rezoning instead of a conditional use permit. This changes the process from quasi-judicial to a legislative, allowing for give and take between the Planning Board, Board of Commissioners and the solar applicants.

Planning Director Ed Muire said the change to conditional district rezoning for considering solar energy system applications may be the most impactful because it levels the playing field by allowing citizens to give their input on proposed utility scale systems without having to be an expert.

Decommissioning plan

A decommissioning plan for utility scale solar energy systems is now required and must include a cost estimate prepared by a North Carolina professional engineer. It must also detail how the solar energy system will be removed and how the system area will be reasonably restored to its original condition if the system does not produce energy for a 360-day continuous period. 

Prior to permitting, the applicant shall provide Rowan County financial surety at 1.25 times the mutually agreed cost estimate amount.

An updated decommissioning plan detailing costs shall be submitted to the Rowan County Planning Department at least six months prior to the 10-year anniversary of installation and six months prior to every five-year anniversary thereafter. The updated plan must include an analysis of the power produced annually at the facility.

Land use plan changes

Through changes to the county’s land use plan, commissioners have made it clear where solar energy systems are encouraged and where they are discouraged. While there is no hard and fast rule outlawing where a utility scale system can go, it is ultimately the decision of the board where a system can be located. These are the general recommendations:

• Areas currently served or having the potential to be served by water or sewer infrastructure are not preferred locations.

• Existing industrial and economic development zoning districts or sites and properties listed with the Rowan County Economic Development Commission are not preferred locations. 

• Systems are encouraged in areas with low to moderate residential population densities in combination with buffers and screening.

• Locations or areas of a site with topography such that screening and visual separation cannot be achieved from adjoining properties or roadways within a three year time frame should be avoided. 

• Sites that will occupy prime soils or displace active farming operations are not preferred, but if approved should incorporate native plants or grasses as ground cover and include pollinator friendly vegetation. 

• Panel locations within special flood hazard areas or placement of fill within these areas of a site is discouraged.

• Subject to potential utility extensions, sites having identified poor soils or building and septic constraints are generally encouraged for selection. 

• Sites within the view of a public park, National Register-listed historic property or Rowan County landmark are not preferred. 

• Utility scale solar energy systems located within 1 mile of another utility scale solar energy system are discouraged.

• A maximum system acreage of 50 acres is preferred, but may be increased based on the site’s ability to meet all other recommendations contained herein.

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