News: CJ Exclusives

Rural solar developments pit neighbor against neighbor

Solar developers can offer landowners more in lease payments than they can get from tenant farmers

Keith Gatlin, a retired heart surgeon, opposes the solar energy project that would cover the nearby field and more land beyond the tree line. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Keith Gatlin, a retired heart surgeon, opposes the solar energy project that would cover the nearby field and more land beyond the tree line. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

COOL SPRINGS — As more and more rural communities push back against renewable energy developers and the encroachment of solar generating plants on open space, another fight gets far less attention.

“Right now it’s neighbor against neighbor,” Ron Heiniger, a crop and soil scientist at N.C. State Cooperative Extension’s Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth, told Carolina Journal. One neighbor claims a right to develop his property as he sees fit. Another neighbor worries about environmental effects and plummeting property values.

“A good industry brings neighbors together,” Heiniger said.

Cooperative Extension Deputy Director Tom Melton said solar developers frequently target “fairly flat, good farmland. For a lot of us that is a problem.”

Landowners hold mixed opinions about solar facilities in their neighborhoods, he said. A solar company often will pay more to lease farmland than a tenant farmer could afford to offer for the same property. This causes conflict.

“The majority of the land any one farmer farms is leased. So they don’t like solar installations because it’s running lease rates up, which makes it more expensive for them to farm,” Melton said.

“Then you have rural people who understandably don’t want to see [solar facilities] out there. They see it as changing their way of life, and what they see,” Melton said. “I totally get that, understand that, would feel the exact same way.”

That scenario is playing out in Iredell County. California-based Cypress Creek Renewables wants to put an 80-megawatt solar plant in an agriculturally zoned area dotted with country homes in the hamlet of Cool Springs.

In early January, the county zoning board turned back Cypress Creek’s application for a special-use permit for the solar farm. But Cypress Creek may appeal the decision to Superior Court. And even if the county wins, that victory may be fleeting. On three recent occasions, solar developers have won challenges at the state Court of Appeals. Appellate judges said if zoning rules allowed solar farms, then solar developers could not be denied a permit to build the facilities for aesthetic reasons.

Samuel Bickley of High Point is one of two landholders who wants to lease 407 acres to Cypress Creek Renewables. Bickley’s daughter explained the move during a Nov. 16 hearing before the Iredell County Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Her father is now in his 80s and cannot maintain the land, Sarah Bickley of Durham testified. She and her sister, who lives in Baltimore, have careers and families and cannot keep tabs on the property.

Over the past 40 years Samuel Bickley has spent weekends at the farm, where he restored a 19th century log cabin, holds an annual dove hunt, and runs bird dog trials. Half of the land is leased to farmers to grow corn, soybeans, and milo. The rest is for recreation and hunting.

Sarah Bickley said her father decided rather than turning the quiet country farm into a noisy subdivision, he preferred to lease it as a solar facility. “[It] preserves this land for future farming, which is something my father values tremendously.”

Neighbors who oppose the project “just like to look at the farm that my dad maintains and pays taxes on,” Sarah Bickley said. “Neighbors want to be able to control what our land looks like from their kitchen windows. But my father’s never tried to control what any of his neighbors’ property looks like on land that they own. He requests the same degree of respect.”

Hugh Steele of Winston-Salem owns a 60-acre farm he inherited from family members. It adjoins the property of Charles and Patricia Crenshaw of Mooresville, the second family hoping to lease to Cypress Creek Renewables.

“I grew up over there,” Steele said. “I’d go down there fishing for what they call horny heads,” a chub in the minnow family.

Solar developers approached Steele about five years ago to lease his property. He refused because a solar panel array would not fit the look and feel of the community. He has helped organize neighborhood meetings and opposition to the Cypress Creek Renewables solar facility.

“That solar farm is going to be larger than Epcot Center in Florida,” Steele said. He and his daughter testified against issuing Cypress Creek Renewables a special use permit at a Dec. 21 zoning board meeting.

“I’m all for renewable energy,” said Keith Gatlin, a retired heart surgeon who has a horse and small animal menagerie at the end of a lane leading to his house in a wooded glen.

“It’s just the situation here is the location of this industrial complex,” which would border his property, Gatlin said. “I think of all the land there is in Iredell County there’s better places to situate a complex this large.” He has helped hire a lawyer who defeated the special use permit.

Gatlin’s property is worth $1.5 million. He worries what impact solar panels blanketing the rolling landscape will have on his property value. If he ever decided to sell, he’s not sure who would want to buy a place with a solar utility within a stone’s throw.

Because he and his wife love watching the wildlife, they placed their land in conservation easement before the prospect of the solar facility arose.

“There are not going to be any deer on the inside of their 6-foot chain link fence. There won’t be any deer, turkey, quail, rabbits. They won’t be able to come and go. There won’t be any habitat for them,” Gatlin said. “When they put this complex in they’re going to be creating 400 acres of ecological desert.”