Letter to the editor: County needs clear solar policy

Published 9:45 am Friday, February 19, 2021

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To the editor:

I am responding to the “Solar Farm OKd” article in the Feb. 11 edition. The article accurately describes the rigorous debate for and against the solar farm off Pudding Ridge Road, but that specific project is only a small part of the real issue. Much bigger is the matter of how solar projects are getting decided for our county.  As your article notes, next up for the commissioners is the 800-plus acre solar farm in the Ratledge Road area, a massive project that will more than double the county’s current solar acreage.

Solar is a growth industry, and with the precedent of the Pudding Ridge project, it appears we now have a county policy for solar projects that is arbitrary, subjective, and just plain bad. Worse, the county has a great land use planning framework in place that our commissioners are inexplicably choosing not to use.    

Here is some context your article didn’t cover.

Our county’s land use is supposedly guided by the Davie County Comprehensive Plan – A Development Guide to 2040. Any resident can view this online at Comprehensive-Plan-2019 (daviecountync.gov).  County planners crafted it deliberately over a two-year period that included extensive community engagement, local focus groups, and multiple public meetings.  Planners used this input to craft a 40-year vision and goals for Davie, one of which is to “preserve the rural character of Davie County.”

As you’d expect, the comprehensive plan includes a section on utilities, even going so far as to plot every single failed septic system in the county. This section notes: “Utilities … can therefore be a significant driver of economic development, as well as help manage growth throughout the County when planned appropriately.”

County commissioners approved the plan in December 2019—a mere 14 months ago—with provision for annual review to keep it current. The whole project was an exercise in good government, of which our county’s leaders and staff should be proud.

Unfortunately, as thorough as it is, the plan is silent on the topic of solar projects. We pointed out this shortcoming to the commissioners in September, which was the first time the Pudding Ridge Road project appeared on their agenda. Commissioner Renegar remarked “it’s a problem.”  We recommended using the annual review as a perfect opportunity to gather data, determine metrics and craft a vision on how solar projects fit with the county’s land use goals.  After hearing the debate, the commissioners wisely decided to table the Pudding Ridge Road solar project.

It was astonishing then, that the matter reappeared on the February agenda. The annual review wasn’t completed, and nothing had changed. The commissioners reversed their course, completely abandoned the planning process, and chose to move ahead with a subjective vote.  To ensure the 3-2 majority, special provisions were made for Commissioner Blakely to attend the meeting virtually (the past practice for when commissioners must be physically absent was to proceed without them).

Even more confounding, after voting was complete, Commissioner Renegar gave the instructions to County Manager David Bone and staff to “come up with a different plan by the next meeting, one that more clearly spells out the rules and that takes some of the subjectivity out of the process.”  Those were exactly the instructions given in September.

So where does that leave us?

As Ratledge Road makes its way onto the agenda and more solar projects emerge, the three yes-voting commissioners—Renegar, Blakely, and Pointdexter–have a set a troubling precedent. The county’s policy for solar projects is now apparently whatever they arbitrarily decide. If they continue to vote these projects through with the rationale of “landowner’s rights” or other random criteria, these projects will continue unchecked and render the county’s planning and zoning useless. Can you imagine trying to buy land in Davie without knowing if your adjacent neighbor is soon to be a massive solar farm? Don Vernon, quoted in the article, certainly didn’t know that.

On the other hand, if these commissioners vote against future projects, they are now in the business of picking winners and losers among land owners. They will subject themselves claims of hypocrisy and favoritism that breed mistrust from those denied.

More broadly, these three commissioners’ actions make it unclear if the Davie County Comprehensive Plan’s annual review will occur, if it will include solar projects, or if it is even worth the paper it is written on.    

On Pudding Ridge Road, the developer Birdseye Solar has communicated well with area residents and will probably end up being a good neighbor.  But Davie County’s residents deserve and should demand consistency, transparency, and predictability from our elected leaders.  When it comes to solar projects, we aren’t getting it.

Here is a suggested way forward. End the bad policy of arbitrary, subjective decision-making for solar projects by the commissioners. Place a moratorium on solar projects until county planners can engage their excellent comprehensive planning process. Determine basic metrics for energy like how much does Davie need now and in the future? Map the current power substations and consider adding “solar zones” to planning and zoning maps so residents have some predictability. Engage relevant community stakeholders so they can be part of the process. These are all elements of good planning that Davie planners and we citizens have shown we do well. Let’s do them again for solar and get back to good government.    

Andy Backus