Editorial: Gold Hill solar farm vote may send developers elsewhere

Published 12:10 am Thursday, November 18, 2021

By voting down a 574-acre solar farm proposal this week, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners may ward off utility-scale facilities in the county for good.

About two years ago, commissioners considered a request for a 428-acre solar farm in western Rowan County. The proposal immediately led to a longer-than-expected moratorium on solar farms and the development of recommendations about what’s preferred in the county. The maximum size of facilities was limited to 50 acres.

The 2019 solar farm plans were officially withdrawn instead of being denied, but that’s only because the developers saw the writing on the wall. Commissioners were closer to denying the proposal than agreeing with developers’ plans.

With new rules in hand, Rowan County commissioners this week considered a larger solar farm. Developers offered concessions about screening the solar farm, including pulling back the panels 600 feet from U.S. 52. They touted the low impact on public services and a $2 million contribution to the tax base over the projected 40-year lifespan, but they encountered loud and organized opposition from Gold Hill residents.

There were concerns about pilots flying out of the Gold Hill Airpark, the loss of hunting land and property values. But the most effective argument was that it would fundamentally change the community’s character.

“The site would become the dominant and defining feature of the entire Gold Hill community,” said Gold Hill Airpark resident John Ritchie during a public hearing.

After 2019 and this week, it’s worth wondering whether any proposal of a utility-scale size would get the support of a Republican-majority commission.

There’s no official size floor for utility scale in Rowan County’s recommendations, but it’s hard to imagine a path where Rowan County commissioners support anything larger than a couple hundred acres. Any proposal of that size will receive same kind of opposition as Gold Hill. Then, commissioners will be hard-pressed to explain why they rebuffed a request in Gold Hill, hesitated at another in western Rowan County and voted for another somewhere else.

Developers seem likely to look at the two recent utility scale cases and try for another county instead of spending money in Rowan. The county is on a path toward residential growth and sprouting neighborhoods in areas that were previously unpopulated. That’ll make it harder to find locations where organized opposition won’t materialize.

Importantly, opposition from commissioners doesn’t appear to be a blanket stance against solar farms because they’ve voted for smaller ones before. Their “no” votes are more nuanced, and smaller solar farm developers shouldn’t be discouraged by the recent denial.