The Lancaster County Council faced into the future as it took on a discussion of Solar Farms in Monday night’s meeting. The topic arose as two resolutions to consider the conditional use of Rural Residential zoned property in Indian Land was considered. The two properties would be used for solar farms. One farm of 16 acres and the other 20 acres.
County Attorney John Weaver indicated “these alternative energy farms” to the first in Lancaster County, but common elsewhere. He indicated that according to the Uniform Development Ordinance (UDO) that solar farms are a permitted conditional use in 5 zone classifications. Use is permitted in Agricultural Rural (AR), Rural Residential (RR), Rural Neighborhood (RN), Light Industrial (LI), and Heavy Industrial (HI). Weaver explained that the conditional use designation was placed in solar farms due to potential impacts on the surrounding neighborhood and county in general. As such, they required individual and specific approval for use. He also indicated that council can impose specific limitations or conditions on individual conditional use permits.
Specific requirements in the UDO were highlighted by Weaver. The farm must be setback from other property by at least 150 feet, and screening must be in place to obscure the farm from the view of neighbors. The engineer helping to design the farm indicated that the maximum height of panels was 8.5 feet. The landscaping must be 6 feet tall when planted and reach a height of 10 feet in three years. A security fence of at least 8 feet or taller must be installed to secure the farm and equipment and obscure the equipment
Glare was an issue brought up. The Panels at both the Polaris Solar, LLC site and Shem Solar, LLC sites would be tracking. This type of panel moved to be in direct alignment with the sun. And Glare would be directed back in the direction of the sun. This would make the facility virtually glare-free. The plans using tracking panels have been reviewed by the FAA, and no threats were found to impact aircraft.
The decommissioning of the farm is critical to the council. Charlene McGriff asked what would happen if the company went bankrupt or failed to maintain the farm. Solar panels have a lifetime duration of about 40 years. The UDO does specifically detail a decommissioning process, but there are no Letters of Credit or financial requirements. McGriff seemed to be voicing the council’s concerns over recent problems with contractors who leave without finishing or providing a letter of credit for ongoing repairs.
Several council members questioned the zoning designations. The property would not have to be rezoned. The solar farms would be an allowed conditional use under the current designation of Rural Residential. Council Mosteller asked if the zoning should be commercial or utility. Penelope Karagounis indicated that they could do a text revision to the UDO for future farms.
Councilman Honeycutt brought the discussion to the benefits for the county when he asked. “What’s in it for the county?” The answer was very little. The property would be leased to the company installing and maintaining the panels. The landowner would remain paying the property taxes. The company, Southern Current, would pay personal property taxes, which would reduce annually as the equipment depreciates. Currently, there are some discussions for a Fee in Lieu agreement with Southern Current.
The council members voted to defer the vote on the resolutions until the next meeting so several key department heads and staff could be present. Karagounis reminded the council that it has 45 days from the time the conditional use permit is requested to act on the permit, or it will automatically be approved. The 45 day is on March 27th, 2018. The council next meets on March 26th, 2018, at which time they will have to make a decision yea or nay.