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Solar amendments could block project, dim our future

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By Karl Brandspigel and Nita Coleman
Guest Columnists

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

This month, Pasquotank County commissioners have an opportunity to give a gift to all the citizens they represent now, and in future generations. They will decide the fate of the biggest economic development opportunity to come our way in a very long time. If commissioners agree, a $500-million, 3,000-acre solar project will produce renewable energy at a cost that is already competitive, without subsidy, with clean-coal-produced power and falling with breathtaking speed. The solar project will generate more than $12 million in additional property tax revenues for us over 20 years. And it will put Pasquotank County on the map as the home of the largest commercial wind farm and the largest commercial solar farm in the southeastern U.S. Apart from the $12 million in additional tax revenue, the economic-development branding value of that combination is impossible to overstate.

While 3,000 acres sounds pretty big, The Desert is really big too. The footprint of the proposed solar farm would cover only 4 percent of Pasquotank County’s tillable land.

Our commissioners have worked hard to create a favorable business environment in our county. Thanks to their efforts, we have better roads, natural gas, reverse-osmosis water, and high-speed internet. But the companies that are driving the growth of the national economy — companies like Microsoft, Intel, Google, and Apple — are looking for something more. They are looking for places to build their data centers, and they want green power. And it’s not just the tech industry: Starbucks, Walmart, IKEA, REI, T Mobile, Bank of America and Office Depot are just a few of the many Fortune 500 companies committed to the Green Power Partnership. Large-scale, low-cost renewable energy is on these companies' radar, which will create jobs, provide needed tax revenue for our schools, and help make our county a better place to live.

Unfortunately, our county commissioners now appear headed in the wrong direction on this project. They have imposed two 60-day moratoriums on solar development and are considering amendments to our current solar ordinance that, if enacted, will send this project to another community. The three proposed amendments are:

* Limiting the maximum size for all new solar farms to 250 acres

* Establishing a 1-mile separation between all solar farms in the county

* Establishing a 1/2-mile setback from U.S. Highway 17, Halstead Boulevard, and the future I-87 for all new solar farms.

Commissioners are right to require reasonable setbacks, good vegetative screening, and protection of our agricultural drainage systems and the watersheds they feed into. But arbitrary size limits and unreasonable setbacks are deal-breakers and Pasquotank County citizens, current and future, will be the biggest losers.

Commissioners are also understandably concerned about the impact the solar project may have on future development along the future I-87. But as Committee of 100 Chairman Peter Thomson pointed out in a column recently, waiting for an interstate highway that may take 15 or more years to complete is not an economic development strategy. A $12-million bird in hand now is worth quite a few birds in the distant-future bush — particularly when the bird in hand promises to attract additional high-tech development to our area. We encourage our commissioners to negotiate in good faith with the developer to resolve their concerns and move this project forward.

The three deal-breaking solar ordinance amendments will be considered by the county’s Planning Board today at 7 p.m. in Courthouse C. The planning board can make recommendations, but the final decision will be made by the county commissioners at their meeting on Nov 19.

Renewable energy is our best hope for a bright and prosperous future. Let’s embrace it.

Karl Brandspigel and Nita Coleman are physicians who live in Pasquotank County.

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