I was intrigued to learn that Cleveland County, N.C. is considering a zoning ordinance amendment to make solar farms allowable only in light and heavy industrial districts.

It appears the ordinance amendment is being considered because solar farms – like practically all land use change proposals – bring out neighbors who do not want change.  And Cleveland County has had several large solar projects come through local approval.

But changing the Table of Permitted Uses to allow utility-scale solar only in industrial districts, as opposed to agricultural and rural residential districts, only means that solar developers will file applications to rezone large rural tracts to a light industrial zoning district.

I’m sure the proposed change arises from good intentions, but it misses the mark in several places.  For example:

  1. RA and AG districts are universally considered appropriate for a wide variety of industrial uses, including mines and quarries, lumber yards, airports, landfills, broadcast towers, and yes, farms. In many cases, what one might call a “real farm” cannot function without large trucks and loud, heavy equipment.
  2. Although a solar energy facility is technically “industrial,” it possesses none of the traits we associate with industrial uses. Specifically, a solar farm does not produce industrial traffic, industrial noise, industrial odors, industrial sized buildings, or use industrial lighting. In fact, solar farms produce no audible noise, no perceptible traffic, no lights, no odors, and no dust.  On average, these facilities generate fewer vehicle trips per month than a typical single family home generates per day.  With minimal landscaping, neighboring owners usually forget that they are there.
  3. The early phase of solar energy in the 2 to 5 megawatt projects is giving way to facilities that range from 20 megawatts to hundreds of megawatts. At a rule-of-thumb ten acres per megawatt that means the new, larger facilities will require several hundreds of acres. The only place such tracts can be assembled is in rural areas. If a county had several hundred acres of contiguous land zoned for industrial use, it would be wiser to market it for a megasite or industries that create more permanent jobs.
  4. Solar farms actually save large rural tracts from housing developments that bring traffic and noise into a rural community and enable the land to remain in the family. When the lease is up, the land can be returned to agricultural or timber use.
  5. In my experience, which is – wild guess – more than 125 solar farm approvals in 4 states, true farmers are among the last to complain that someone has found a profitable way to use their land. Those who complain loudest usually are people who are new to rural areas and now want to control how their neighbors use their land.

But Cleveland County has a good planning staff and excellent attorneys who assist. I wish them luck in making this decision.

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Tom Terrell

Terrell_TomMr. Terrell is widely regarded as one of North Carolina’s leading land use attorneys, representing both private and governmental entities in matters related to real estate development. His practice “footprint” covers the state from the mountain counties to the coast and occasionally includes…

Terrell_TomMr. Terrell is widely regarded as one of North Carolina’s leading land use attorneys, representing both private and governmental entities in matters related to real estate development. His practice “footprint” covers the state from the mountain counties to the coast and occasionally includes parts of Virginia and South Carolina. His many clients are involved in commercial and residential real estate, solid waste hauling and disposal, telecommunications, quarries/asphalt and miscellaneous litigation related to permit denials, vested rights and rezonings.

He has published numerous articles and speaks regularly to legal, governmental and business groups on a variety of issues related to land use and zoning.

Mr. Terrell has served as a leader in numerous civic and legal endeavors, including Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the N.C. State Health Plan, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Winston-Salem State University, and service on the Board of Directors of the UNC-CH General Alumni Association, Board of Directors of the High Point Chamber of Commerce, Board of Visitors of Guilford College and Board of Center Associates of the Center for Creative Leadership, and as a founding member of the N.C. Bar Association Zoning, Planning and Land Use Section.

More information can be found at https://www.foxrothschild.com/thomas-e-terrell-jr/.

Mr. Terrell can be contacted at mailto:tterrell@foxrothschild.com.