The debate about whether to allow solar farms to operate in Henderson County is heating up after the Board of Commissioners was split on the matter during a lengthy and lively public hearing this past week.
Unable to reach a consensus, commissioners voted to spend the next month or so gathering more information from county staff and studying the complex issue before holding a public workshop during their April 18 meeting.
This past week’s discussion began after a presentation by county Planning Director Anthony Starr, who recommended a proposed amendment to the Land Development Code allowing solar energy generation facilities, or solar farms, of 30 acres or less to operate in the county. The Planning Board already had given its unanimous approval, citing a potential increase to the tax base and a boost for meeting a state law passed in 2007 that requires utility companies to generate at least 12.5 percent of power from renewable energy sources by the year 2021.
The proposal came about after Edneyville couple Tom and Marcia Pace filed an application in January seeking to change the Land Development Code. The Paces were renting about 30 acres for agriculture and were intrigued after learning they could generate much more revenue by leasing the land for solar-farm use. And they have a potential customer in John and Richard Green, owners of Asheville-based Innovative Solar Systems, who are looking for space in Henderson County to set up shop.
Commissioners Mike Edney and Charlie Messer support the measure, arguing it’s a property rights issue. Commissioners Bill O’Connor and Larry Young oppose it.
O’Connor said that he opposed such an amendment largely because solar and other sustainable-energy businesses are not economically feasible without federal and state tax credits, and he is against using taxpayer money “to support a pipe dream.”
“This is a lovely thought,” O’Connor said, “but the technology doesn’t support it; it can’t stand in the marketplace without your money and mine, and I am adamantly opposed – adamantly opposed – to encouraging the use of public funds for private benefit or for making people feel good about the world.”
Messer countered by saying that denying the amendment would represent local government singling out a particular private-land use to impose its authority.
“I think we’re looking at it as picking on one item, and I’m not looking at it that way,” Messer said. “It’s a land-use, personal-property issue, and I think the people of Henderson County should have that option (to lease to solar farms) if they abide by the rules. The Planning Board has done (extensive) homework on this zoning issue on this amendment and have had several meetings. So we’re sitting up here making the final decision on homework that we’ve asked the Planning Board to bring back to us. And then we’re sitting up here and judging because it’s solar or gasoline … or whatever – I don’t think we’re doing our job.”
Edney agreed. “I don’t look at this as a federalism issue as much as a property rights issue,” he said. “That gives the commission the ability to get the heck out of the way of people who own a property, and allow them to do what they want on their own property. For that reason, I will support it.”
Young’s major problem with the proposed amendment – a position backed by O’Connor and county resident Ray Rhoads during public comments – is the potentially negative aesthetic effects solar farms would have on residential neighborhoods.
O’Connor and Young, who suggested solar-farm applications be considered on a special-use permit basis based on size and location of the proposed operation, also argued that large blocks of land such as 30 acres could be utilized more advantageously for industrial facilities.
“Is a solar farm the highest and best use of property, when jobs is the issue for all of us?” O’Connor said. “And solar farms don’t provide jobs; industrial factories provide jobs.”
The Green brothers, meanwhile, made their case to commissioners in support of the amendment. John Green said he’s spoken to many landowners who favor the proposal because they see the opportunity to make good money over an extended period of time. While his brother acknowledged that solar-power companies currently “cannot stand on their own two feet” without the help of government tax rebates, the Greens said that reliance on traditional energy sources will cause power rates to go “through the roof” at the same time that state mandates call for stepped-up alternative energy use.
“So this is really a win-win for everybody,” John Green said, “not just for the people that are going to be leasing their land, not just for the county that gets more tax money out of the solar farms, but ultimately for everybody living in the county who will pay less once solar power comes online.”
Resident Janice Parker disagreed, saying she was there to protest the county’s possible participation in green-energy efforts. She cited studies in Europe that she said have shown renewable energy sources have been proven unreliable and incapable of meeting the continent’s energy needs.
“I represent a lot of neighbors, friends, tea party people, Republican people,” Parker said. “We’re not dumb – we know that man-made global warming is believed by many reliable people to be a hoax.”
Parker said green initiatives are a waste of taxpayer money, and she suggested commissioners instead sign a resolution to pursue other energy sources.
Responding to the Green brothers, Parker said that instead of complying with state mandate to meet renewable-energy thresholds, “we just need to get rid of” the law itself.
“I agree exactly with what Mr. O’Connor said: The only place to stop it is at the local level.”