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Solar amendments still under review

Following a Tuesday meeting of the Charlotte County Planning Commission, a recommendation regarding solar amendments in the county is still under review.

According to County Purchaser and Planning Agent Monica Elder, “The County Attorney has provided an opinion to the Planning Commission regarding decommissioning utility-scale solar facilities and right of entry. The Planning Commission met in closed session last night to review and discuss the attorney’s legal advice. After reconvening in open session, the Planning Commission requested that staff continue to work with legal counsel on these issues.”

During the meeting, Charlotte Court House Resident Terry Ramsey spoke and expressed his concerns regarding solar energy safeguards to protects the citizens of Charlotte County.

Ramsey said during earlier drafts of the solar ordinance, a 2 percent maximum density was proposed within a 5 mile radius.

However, he said the current draft has increased the maximum density to 3 percent.

“Effective July 1, 2018, Halifax County reduced the maximum density for large scale (utility scale) facilities to 2.5 percent. I ask the Planning Commission to revise the maximum density in the current draft to 2.5 percent,” said Ramsey.

He said this was a compromise between the current 3 percent and Halifax County’s 2 percent.

“Solar energy is new technology and new to the County,” said Ramsey. “It is prudent and safer to start smaller until experience is gained.”

Throughout his comments, Ramsey also touched on-site owner responsibility, particularly regarding the expense of removing or repairing the facility.

He said currently, Halifax County includes definitions for operator, facility owner and site owner. Additionally, all three are held jointly liable.

“I ask the Planning Commission to include similar provisions in Charlotte’s ordinance to hold the site owner responsible,” said Ramsey. “This will protect the County if the bond is not sufficient. The owner and operator may be LLC’s with no assets if things go wrong.”

However, he said the Charlotte County land would also have some value and “the profiting site owner’s risk should not be borne by the County and its citizens.”

Elder said when the Planning Commission met in June, Ramsey had mentioned issues related to the density requirements and clarifying what the project area was.

“We did come up with some language on that …” said Elder. “Basically it changed to say no more than 3 percent of the land area in any given 5 mile radius shall be approved for use of the project area for utility scale energy systems including solar panels and related equipment, fencings, driveways, internal roads and associated structures.”

However, she said the question is the definition that was placed within the language and the issues that may arise based on that.

She said the project area for Halifax included the fenced in area for the project where solar energy is being produced.

She said a better way to simplify the question of what the project area entails is needed.

“I feel like that the way it stands is pretty obvious that it takes in the fencing, driveways, internal roads and do we just want to add the setbacks?” asked Planning Commission Member Dr. Nancy Carwile.

“I guess when you have a fenced in project area there’s gonna be some open spaces and things in it too and is that considered part of it or is it just the areas where you’ve got things cited that are specifically listed here …,” said Elder.

She said it leaves room for interpretation.

“What we often do is we pay for what we use, but landowners don’t want to be left with a little slither of land or whatever …” said SolUnesco CEO Francis Hodsoll.

He said the fenced in areas and buffers include the panels. “The rest is open land that wildlife can go through, use for other purposes. So, I would recommend going in that direction, otherwise you’re creating an incentive for us to say to the landowner, ‘well, we can’t do this project unless you keep that wetlands,’” said Hodsoll.

A motion was passed during the meeting to include in the language that the project area be defined as the fenced in area and buffers only.

In light of the decommissioning and salvage value, Elder said a phone call was received after the June 11 public hearing concerning the project from Hodsoll.

“He stated that while they did not object to the salvage value … they were concerned about the impact it may have on other projects.”

Elder said a letter was also received from the Maryland, D.C., Delaware, Virginia solar Energy Industries Association recommending to strike one of the proposed recommended changes in the ordinance regarding disallowing salvage value and determination of the decommissioning costs.

“Following the public hearing on June 11, the Planning Commission requested a legal opinion from the County Attorney regarding the County’s right to enter property to carry out the decommissioning of utility-scale solar facilities as provided for in the proposed amendments,” said Elder previously. “Once the Planning Commission receives an opinion from the attorney, they will continue working on finalizing their recommendation regarding the proposed amendments.”