Guest Editorial: Court made right call in siding with solar farm

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The sun rises and sets. So does the outlook for solar energy in an eastern North Carolina county.

A three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled last month that developers were illegally denied a permit to build a commercial solar farm by Currituck County in 2016. The decision removes a cloud from the otherwise bright solar industry in North Carolina — second in the nation behind California — but doesn’t necessarily signal clear skies in the future.

The ruling could be appealed to the Supreme Court. Or the legislature could reduce tax breaks for solar farms, making investments less lucrative.

And Currituck County already acted earlier this year to bar future development of solar farms.

“Large solar projects haven’t been a good deal for Currituck County residents, says Bobby Hanig, the county commission’s chairman,” Carolina Journal reported in April.

Not all residents agree, but their elected representatives are empowered to set zoning regulations and decide what land uses are allowed.

“Solar array” was a permitted use listed in Currituck County’s development ordinance in 2015 when Currituck Sunshine Farm LLC and Ecoplexus Inc. applied to build a solar farm on a former golf course in Grandy. The county’s planning staff and Planning Board recommend approval. But when the Board of Commissioners held a hearing, acting as a “quasi-judicial” body, a number of residents complained that solar panels wouldn’t be compatible with nearby neighborhoods; there were drainage problems on the site; and home values might be adversely affected. Commissioners rejected the application.

The developers challenged the decision. A Superior Court judge upheld the county’s action, but the appellate court reversed. Its ruling, written by Judge John Tyson, found that the developers complied with all county requirements and that no competent evidence was presented to the contrary. Specifically, the commissioners’ finding that the solar farm would endanger public health and safety wasn’t supported by facts.

A county board of commissioners may be a political body, but when it sits to determine whether an applicant for a conditional use permit qualifies, it must act in a legal capacity. In regard to fears about drainage and flooding, the Currituck board “wholly ignored Petitioners’ expert testimony on water management, and solely considered lay witnesses’ testimony of their speculative fears of worsening floods due to the present state of storm water drainage and management on adjacent properties,” Tyson wrote.

Perhaps anticipating this ruling, Currituck County, following another public hearing, wrote solar farms out of its development ordinance. Arguments were presented on both sides, by farmers who wanted to lease their land for energy development and by people who don’t see much benefit. Currituck County already has two large solar farms.

While the tax revenue for the county is substantial, it is limited by state law, which grants an 80 percent property tax exemption to encourage solar development. Bills were filed in the state House and Senate this year to reduce that break to 60 percent, but neither advanced.

Solar is filling more of our country’s energy needs and offers revenue opportunities in parts of the state where farming and traditional industries have declined. But not every local government will favor such developments. Communities should be able to set their own rules — as long as they abide by legal requirements.

The Court of Appeals made the right call in this case. The people of Currituck County can decide whether to support their leaders’ decision regarding future solar development — and should hold them accountable for acting in the sunlight of public interest.