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Planning Commission votes in favor of solar farm

By WILLIAM PAINE

william.paine@southwesttimes.com

The parking lot at Pulaski County High School was unusually full last Tuesday evening, as well over 100 people came to express their opinions at the Pulaski County Planning Commission Public Hearing.

The subject of the evening was Hecate Energy’s proposed 2,697 acre solar farm, which, pending the approval of the board of supervisors, could begin construction as early as this year.

The land is currently categorized as agricultural and as such, will not allow for a solar energy facility to be located on these properties unless the county grants a Special Use Permit for this purpose.

The idea of constructing a massive solar farm on some of Pulaski County’s finest pasture land has created a noticeable divergence of opinion among Pulaski countians, even amongst members of the same family. The public’s interest in the project prompted county officials to change the location of the public hearing from the county administration building to the PCHS Little Theatre.

At the onset of the hearing, a group called Save Pulaski County Farms presented a petition signed by citizens in opposition to the solar farm. The petition came in two forms, the traditional signature on paper, and an online version. Added together, more than 300 individuals signed the petition opposing the solar farm.

Representatives of Hecate Energy made a short presentation which emphasized the positive aspects of building a solar farm in Pulaski County.

The solar farm represents a $400 million investment in the county and requires no investment or special favors in return. It is estimated that the tax revenue going into county coffers from the proposed solar farm would be $420,000 annually.

Land for the solar farm would be leased for 35 years. At the end of that term, the owners of the solar farm would be obliged to deconstruct and remove the panels. Much of these materials are said to be recyclable, especially the steel framing.

Hecate Energy plans to sell the solar farm after its construction, but even if that happens, according to Hecate representatives, the obligation to dismantle the solar panels will carry through to the next owner.

Another key point made by Hecate reps, and then echoed by several individuals who plan on leasing their land to the energy firm, is that no one was compelled to lease their property by eminent domain. All property owners who have agreed to lease their pastureland to Hecate did so voluntarily.

Several individuals, most of whom planed on leasing their land for the project, spoke in favor of the proposed solar farm.

The proponents of the solar farm brought up several points, chief among them was the idea that the land was theirs and finding an alternate way to profit from their property was their prerogative. Many of those in favor of the project talked about how working in agriculture was difficult and often a less than profitable endeavor and that they would do whatever they could to insure the prosperity of their families.

It was also mentioned that even as many have decried the loss of pasture, the area for the planned solar farm makes up only about 3.5% of Pulaski County’s arable land.

Many of the landowners plan to graze sheep in amongst the solar panels. Hecate Energy representatives said that this would be feasible but added that allowing for goats to graze would prove too destructive.

Several more people came to voice their opposition to the solar farm and many of these opinions focused on the idea that the county’s view shed would be negatively affected by these large solar arrays. The fact that the solar farm could negatively affect tourism, as well as residential property values, was brought up many times.

Those who would be living adjacent to the solar farm were particularly concerned about their view being dominated by solar panels and more than one person asked that the required 50 foot boundary between their property and the solar farm be extended.

Many of those opposed to the project mentioned how the loss of several hundred acres of farm land would negatively affect Pulaski County’s agricultural heritage by depriving future farmers of land and employment opportunities. The idea that local stores that receive a lot of their business from farmers would be hurt was also brought up.

Mary Catherine Stout, who lives on Cloyd’s Mountain, told the members of the board of her concerns that the solar farms would cover or obscure many historically significant locations in the county.

Several of those opposed to the project mentioned what they referred to as a conflict of interest involving Joe Guthrie, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors. Guthrie and his family own a large swath of land which will be leased to Hecate Energy if the project gets the green light.

Pulaski’s Commonwealth Attorney, Justin Griffith, determined that there is no conflict as Guthrie is one of several landowners who could stand to profit for the project.

Janet Flory, who also claims membership to the Guthrie family, spoke against the solar farm. She along with her son and daughter run a dairy farm that lies adjacent to the prospective solar facility.

More than two hours after the start of the meeting, Chairman of the Planning Commission Andy Hall asked if anyone else wished to voice their opinion. When no one else came to the floor, the public hearing was called to a close.

Board members were then free to ask representatives of Hecate Energy any questions they might have regarding the project.

Of special interest to the commissioners was the fate of the solar farm if and when Hecate Energy decides to sell. Hecate representatives assured the commissioners that any entity that bought the solar farm would be contractually obliged to maintain the same terms of operation. They likened the situation to an easement, which goes along with the property regardless of who owns it.

The commissioners also asked about the potential of decreased property values for residences near the solar farm. Hecate representatives replied that no significant loss of value has been observed at any of their other solar farm sites and that in North Carolina, a residential development was built next to the solar facility after it was completed.

Finally, it was time to vote on whether or not to recommend that the county board of supervisors accept or reject Hecate Energy’s request for a Special Use Permit, as Planning and Zoning Director Elaine Holeton had earlier recommended.

Commissioner John Travis, who is also a member of the board of supervisors, made the motion to approve of the request and this was seconded by commissioner Doug Warren.

Members of the Planning Commission then voted 4 to 2 in favor of granting a Special Use Permit to Hecate. Commissioners voting in favor include Dave Dean, John Travis, Doug Warren and David Clark with Chairman Andy Hall and Commissioner Melanie Lester voting against.

The matter now goes to the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors, who will hold their own public hearing on the Special Use Permit at their upcoming meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25.

This public hearing will also be held at the Pulaski County High School Little Theatre.

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