The Laurinburg City Council has rejected a request to build a large solar farm just outside the city limits following a public hearing that packed council chambers and attracted passionate arguments from both sides.
The 4-1 vote to deny a permit came after a quasi-judicial hearing that saw expert representatives of Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar square off against nearly 20 locals opposed to the project. The hearing concluded after 11 p.m.
Despite the lack of expert testimony from opponents, the city council determined that the opposition met its burden of proof.
“Council is only allowed to consider competent evidence, which means that council is not allowed to consider opinions by non-experts,” said City Attorney William Floyd prior to the hearing. “The law makes it clear that the purpose of this hearing is not to solicit general public comment about the proposal.”
Only Councilman Curtis Leak voted against denying the project a conditional-use permit.
Leak said that similar projects had already been approved by council — including one not far from his house. Leak suggested that the council was giving special consideration to the parties opposed to Strata Solar’s project because of its location proximate to a wealthy subdivision.
“When you put (a solar farm) in District One, a half mile from my house, everything was fair,” Leak said, intimating that there was a double standard between the districts.
Representatives of Strata Solar refused comment following the vote, referring questions to their press representative who was not present at the meeting. The press representative did not return calls prior to presstime.
Residents with property near the proposed solar farm site took turns speculating about harmful effects that the renewable energy project could have on the area. Those concerns ranged from the farm’s potential to distract motorists traveling on US-501 to the possibility that its maintenance may pollute the area water table.
The team of experts brought to the hearing by Strata Solar attempted to answer each of the concerns, but it was not enough to sway council members.
In the end, Councilman Kenton Spencer said that the testimony by Strata Solar’s expert appraiser was unable to convince him that the project would not depress property values and hinder growth in the area.
“The key evidence to me was what their appraiser said. He didn’t offer enough evidence to support (the assertion that property values would not be affected),” Spencer said.
Veteran private appraiser Rich Kirkland testified for Strata that property values would not be harmed by the construction of the solar farm. However, because of how new and novel solar projects are in the state of North Carolina, Kirkland said that he was unable to find similar “matching” properties for comparison to support his opinion.
“It is an unknown … and 30 years is a long time to commit to that,” Spencer said, referencing the term of the proposed lease.
According to the rules of the hearing, as outlined by Floyd, the city council was required to “make specific findings of facts that (the solar farm) more probably than not” will damage property values.
“That burden of proof is on the parties seeking denial of the application,” Floyd said.
Strata Solar attorney Beth Trahos said during the hearing that she did not feel that standard had been met.
“We have heard no expert testimony (from the opposition),” Trahos said, adding that the city’s planning staff had already stated that the solar firm had met its requirements in presenting a complete application in compliance with the property’s current zoning uses.
Speaking on behalf of those opposed to the project, long-time Laurinburg Realtor Brenda Grubbs indicated that she thought the farm would restrict growth in the area and injure property values.
According to Trahos, Grubbs’ testimony did not meet the requirements for expert status outlined by the statutes governing the hearing.
Standing in opposition to the proposal, John Walter Jones presented a petition to the city council signed by more than 200 “concerned citizens” that he said were all opposed to granting the solar farm project a conditional use permit.
Complaints like those made by Jones, whose sister Elizabeth Jones-Turner owns the property in question, also contributed to the appearance of disharmony between the project and the surrounding community.
“We have to look at harmony in the long term,” said Spencer, making note of the number of concerned locals in attendance to oppose the project.
Speaking in opposition of the project, Dr. Ralph Carter said that he was concerned about the “somewhat nebulous” nature of the LLC that would take ownership of the farm. Carter said the LLC was designed to limit liability and to provide anonymity to investors.
Laurinburg resident Kitty Quick said that she was concerned about “environmental contaminants” that may come from the project.
Following up on Quick’s comments, certified professional well driller Thomas Ammons warned the city council that it should be mindful of the project’s effects on nearby wells.
“Is the city prepared for what the ramifications could be for the community?” Ammons asked.
Aesthetics were also a point of criticism for those standing against the project.
“I have five children at home who would have to live by (the solar farm),” said Rhonda Richardson. “Would you want to look at it?” she asked Jones-Turner.
Strata’s project engineers said that a six foot vegetative buffer would almost entirely obscure the solar arrays, but the residents in attendance were not buying that testimony.
Strata Solar reserves the right to appeal the decision made by city council based on numerous objections made by the firm’s attorney throughout the proceeding. An appeal would be heard in Superior Court, according to City Attorney William Floyd.