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Planning Board votes against 574-acre Gold Hill solar farm after lengthy, lively meeting

SALISBURY — At the end of a meeting that needed to be extended twice, the Rowan County Planning Board late Monday night voted against a major solar development planned in Gold Hill.

The 5-2 vote came just before 11 p.m. after four hours of presentations, speeches and impassioned pleas from Gold Hill residents opposed to the project.

The project is being proposed by Charlotte-based Birdseye Renewable Energy, which was recently acquired by Virginia-based Dominion Energy. The proposal calls for the development of a 69-megawatt utility scale solar energy facility on a roughly 574-acre plot of land near Old Beatty Ford Road and U.S. 52, not far from the Gold Hill Airpark. The solar panel area of the project would be approximately 299 acres and would span six combined parcels.

The project was met from the start with fierce and organized pushback from Gold Hill residents, particularly those who live and fly at the private airpark. After Birdseye held community meetings in Gold Hill in June, residents convened at the Gold Hill Fire Department in August to rally opposition to the project.

A similar showing of opposition was present at Monday night’s meeting. The J. Newton Cohen Sr. Meeting Room in the Rowan County Administration Building was brimming with people against the rezoning request, several of whom were holding bright yellow signs reading “No Gold Hill Solar.” 

The specific purpose of the meeting was for the Planning Board to consider recommending or not recommending a conditional district rezoning request from Birdseye, which is required in accordance with updated solar energy system rules and recommendations passed by the Board of Commissioners earlier this year. 

Since the Planning Board is only an advisory committee, the ultimate decision on whether the project moves forward lies with the Board of Commissioners.

During Monday night’s Planning Board meeting, the first to speak for either side was Birdseye founder and President Brian Bednar. He said the Gold Hill site is desirable to the company for a number of reasons, including its proximity to a Duke Energy transmission line, which moves energy from the panels to the energy grid. 

Bednar said he has been involved in dialogue about solar energy projects in Rowan County going back a decade, and those discussions helped guide him to the Gold Hill area. Bednar also mentioned that his company was involved in the process the county underwent to develop new rules regarding solar energy systems.

Landon Abernethy, director of development for Birdseye, followed Bednar and spoke about the merits of the solar project. Rather than an extraction-based or industrial use, Abernethy said the solar panels would be a low-impact, quiet use of the land. Abernethy touted a projection the solar farm would generate $2.5 million in tax revenue for Rowan County over 40 years.

Abernethy detailed steps Birdseye has taken to adjust its proposal to meet concerns, including bolstering screening measures past the standard, moving the site’s substation away from U.S. 52 and pulling the project back from the road to ensure it does not disturb the natural view one might see from their car while driving through the area.

Approximately 40 total acres of the project, or 7% of the land, are located within the U.S. 52 corridor.

Abernethy also spent several minutes addressing concerns over aviation safety. The potential glare created by the panels in addition to the fact that it would be an unfavorable place to land in an emergency, are issues that have been repeatedly raised by  residents of the Gold Hill Airpark. 

Abernethy said Birdseye has taken those concerns seriously. Along with conducting a glare study, Abernethy said the company consulted pilots and flight instructors to investigate any potential risks to aviation. The results of that research, Abernethy said, indicated there is not a credible claim of danger to pilots in the area caused by the solar panels. The panels, Abernethy explained, rotate constantly to follow the sun and are designed to reflect as little sunlight as possible.

Susanne Todd, a Charlotte-based land use attorney advocating for Birdseye, delivered a short presentation and said the solar project meet the county’s land use recommendations.

The opposition to the project was led by Gold Hill Airpark resident John Ritchie, who has been a vocal critic of the solar development at previous meetings. Ritchie summarized many of the concerns Gold Hill residents have rallied around, including the solar project’s impact on the town’s tourism industry, the perceived threat it poses to airpark pilots and the effect it would have on the migratory patterns of wildlife, especially deer. Additionally, Ritchie said the project would lower property values and could drive people away from the Gold Hill Airpark.

One of the key reasons why the project should not move forward, Ritchie argued, was because it would be less than a mile away from another large solar energy development being planned in Stanly County. Many Gold Hill residents said during the meeting they would be “sandwiched” between the two solar projects.

Ritchie’s presentation was followed by a parade of Gold Hill residents who stated similar concerns. Lance Riley, who has a doctorate in aquatic science from the University of Florida, expressed worry the project would impact land critical to endangered species of plants and animals. Riley said he didn’t believe Birdseye’s claim the solar panels do not contain hazardous chemicals and said he was concerned chemicals could leak into nearby waterways.

Jonathan Featherstone, a large animal veterinarian who grew up hunting in and around where the solar energy project would be located, showed the Planning Board pictures of his family hunting near the site.

“This is what Gold Hill is all about,” Featherstone said while fighting back tears. “It’s not solar panels.”

Darius Hedrick, a longtime leader of historic preservation efforts in Gold Hill, decried the impact the solar panels would have on the town’s tourism industry. Gold Hill Fire Department Chief Matt Brock said the solar project would be “setting firefighters up to get killed” while claiming there is no plan for if a fire breaks out on the property.

The last person to walk to the lectern before the Planning Board voted was James Schad, who owns a portion of the land where the planned solar project would be located. In addition to saying he believed that solar is the future and is the “highest and best” use of the property, Schad argued his property rights should override what his neighbors wish for him to do with the parcel.

“I have rights to use my property however I feel,” Schad said. “I think if I were to come here and wanted to build a residential development or a business park, I would get rebuttal on anything that I wanted to use my property for aside from doing what the neighbors want me to do which apparently is just let it sit.”

Before the Planning Board voted, each member explained the logic behind their decision. 

Pete Bogle, chairman of the board, said he could not vote in favor of the project for a number of reasons. In addition to the project exceeding the county’s 50-acre preferred size limit, Bogle said the project violated other county land use plan recommendations by being located within a mile of the proposed solar energy project in Stanly County. Bogle said the project could be “highly detrimental” to the airport-based community as well.

Like Bogle, board member Jack Fisher said he could not vote for the project because it violated multiple land use plan recommendations, including that a portion of the land is located in the U.S. 52 corridor. Fisher said he was wary of the solar development’s impact on people, the town and wildlife.

Board member Karla Foster, who owns a realty company, said she voted against the project because she didn’t want to drive away people who are coming to Rowan County to escape urban development.

“I’m afraid if we continue to allow massive solar farms to develop over and over and over again, we are going to lose what people are choosing to come to,” Foster said.

Board member Michael Harrill said airpark safety was his top priority and was his reason for voting against the rezoning request. Board member Michael Julian said he didn’t buy Abernethy’s assertion that the solar panels wouldn’t create any potentially dangerous glare. 

Board member Adam Sewell said he tended to lean on the side of private property rights and was in favor of the project. Likewise, board member John Leatherman said he supported the project and commended Birdseye for its preparation and the compromises the company made on the project.

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