BOS rejects solar plan

Published 10:58 am Friday, August 13, 2021

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The Charlotte County Board of Supervisors (BOS) sat face to face with a packed room of citizens who waited to see how the board would vote on proposed solar amendments to the county zoning ordinance Monday, Aug. 9. 

What came out of the meeting was a new proposal for larger setbacks around solar projects and the assertion by a supervisor that some members of the Planning Commission may gain financially from the solar projects they are considering.

Before the vote, a public hearing was held for citizens to voice their concerns on proposed zoning amendment recommendations made by the Planning Commission.

In June, the Planning Commission unanimously voted to amend the zoning ordinance for setbacks and require community meetings for large-scale solar facilities.

The newly amended section of the zoning ordinance called for a minimum setback of 125 feet from the centerline of any state-maintained road abutting the property; a minimum setback of 75 feet from all other property lines with the exception of those property lines that are inside the project’s boundaries and which do not abut property located outside the project area; and a minimum of 400 feet from all off-site residential structures unless otherwise prescribed by the Board of Supervisors (BOS) as a condition of approval for a conditional use permit.

The issue was brought to the Planning Commission in response to comments received regarding several conditional use permit applications for solar projects.

In addition, the BOS requested that the Planning Commission review zoning requirements for utility-scale solar development setbacks and buffers.

During the Monday BOS meeting, only four supervisors were present.

Both Chairman Gary Walker and Vice-Chairman Will Garnett were absent, as well as Supervisor Tony Reeves.

During the lengthy public hearing, BOS members heard from citizens who were in favor of solar projects as well as those who were opposed.

Saxe resident Rodney Moon addressed the BOS. He presented them with a petition of more than 200 signatures representing citizens who did not favor the new zoning amendments, specifically the proposed setbacks and buffers.

Jack Reynolds told members adjoining landowners would be the ones paying the price in the long run for solar facilities.

“We are the ones that have to see it and hear it,” Reynolds said. “One of the applications says that no residents will be affected, and that’s a slap in the face.”

“If we lose this land, we don’t get that back,” Russell Toombs added.

George Smith told the BOS that solar was a “no brainer.” “The Randolph project is a win-win for the county, and I ask you not to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Smith said. “Everyone in the county will benefit from the extra money.”

Francis Hodsoll, CEO of SolUnesco, the developer of the Randolph Solar project, one that is set to be one of the largest in the nation, proposed at 800 megawatts spoke to say solar was a safe alternative.

“Solar has been around for 50 years,” Hodsoll said. “It’s very safe.”

According to Hodsoll, during the next 50 years, Randolph Solar will pay more than $113 million in local taxes to Charlotte County, becoming one of its largest taxpayers.

Following the public hearing, Supervisor Kay Pierantoni led off a lengthy discussion on the matter.

Pierantoni talked about setbacks, buffers, and the fact that, “All of this ties back to money.”

“We are running out of chances to learn, and all of this is going to come back to bite us,” Pierantoni said.

Pierantoni also addressed the issues of decommissioning.

“We do not have an iron-clad decommissioning plan,” she said.

In an email to Planning Commission members earlier this summer, Pierantoni, who also serves as the Planning Commission representative on the BOS, said she believed one of the most important aspects of a project is the buffers.

“Yet buffers have not been defined or increased in any way,” Pierantoni said. “This is a difficult task to undertake, but so important for the future of our county. Perhaps solar projects would be more favorably received if adjoining property owners and the public could have greater assurance of visual obscurity.”

During many discussions among the BOS, some members, Pierantoni included, mentioned that some Planning Commission members had not done their job researching the issue.

Supervisor Donna Fore took the opportunity to express her distrust in the Planning Commission. According to Fore, several members of the Planning Commission have an interest in solar development.

“A few of the members of the planning commission have projects that are committed to solar either currently proposed or on the horizon,” Fore said.
“So, I am not going to sit here and take recommendations from members of the Planning Commission that I know their views are tainted because they stand to benefit monetarily from a project. I’m going to tell you I’m not playing that game. Shame on them, shame on the Planning Commission, shame, shame, shame.”

Supervisor Butch Shook said he was not going to speak for or against solar but added, “This will, or should benefit the citizens. But I think the decision needs to be made by all seven of us.”

After more lengthy talks and a call to the county attorney, Pierantoni motioned to reject the Planning Commission’s recommendations on setbacks reading out a new set of recommended setbacks ranging from 400 feet to 1,000 feet protecting such places as state parks and schools, churches, and residential homes.

The newly proposed setback came from citizen Rebecca Daly.

Shook pointed out that it was the Board of Supervisors themselves who appointed the Planning Commission to their positions.

“We have a Planning Commission that we appointed to help us make these decisions. They have met four times, they have had a public hearing, and we are saying we don’t care what they say?” Shook said. “We are just going to do what one citizen says. Is that what we’re doing? We are saying we don’t care what the Planning Commission says. We are going to do what we want to do.”

When it came time for a vote, Pierantoni and Fore voted to reject the Planning Commission’s recommendation, while Shook voted no.

Supervisors Garland Hamlett, Jr. abstained from voting. He did not say why, but rather moved on to other agenda items.

The matter now goes back to a public hearing with a new set of setbacks to be voted on.