LAURINBURG — Strata Solar’s appeal of a decision by the Laurinburg City Council to deny the company a solar farm permit is expected to be heard in Superior Court later this month.
The Chapel Hill energy company’s appeal is scheduled for Sept. 30 at the Scotland County courthouse, according to City Attorney William Floyd, but that date could be pushed back by routine scheduling issues. City Manager Charles Nichols, citing the city’s policy “not to comment on pending litigation,” referred questions to Floyd.
Strata Solar first approached the city in February with a request to construct a solar farm inside the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the city, near Johns Road. On March 12, the city’s planning board voted to recommend denial of the permit; and in April, the city council conducted a mandatory quasi-judicial hearing and voted to deny the permit 4-1, saying it would “not be in harmony” with its surroundings and would negatively affect property values.
“(The judge) will determine if those findings were supported by the facts that were presented at the hearing,” Floyd said. “If they do not, then they would reverse the decision and send it back to the city council directing them to grant the permit.”
“It will be up to the court to decide the merits of this appeal,” he said.
The city council’s permit denial runs counter to a growing trend in Scotland County and other rural parts of the state, including neighboring Robeson County. Just this year the Scotland County Board of Commissioners approved two solar farms in Laurel Hill.
In 2009, the council approved a 2.3 megawatt solar array near Stewartsville Road. At the time the farm, developed by Charlotte-based Birdseye Renewable Energy was the largest of its type in the state. Created by partners Progress Energy, finance company MP2 Capital, developer Birdseye Renewable Energy and solar producer groSolar, the array was promoted at the time as a step into the future for the city.
While there are no incentives offered locally for solar energy companies, tax breaks are available from both federal and state governments, and cities and counties benefit from the taxable investment.
The federal government provides a tax credit worth 30 percent of the full costs associated with the solar farm equipment, and the state offers a similar 35 percent tax break. The state also adds special deductions for solar water heating, a move that has led many solar companies to offer free or discounted water heating to neighboring companies.
Most solar companies offer 20-year contracts to the rural landowners on whose property the farms are placed. Those contracts often include options for more time, but the life of modern solar panels is limited to a few decades. Other companies opt to purchase the land on which the panels will rest.
Supporting Strata Solar’s position at the April hearing were several testimonials from an independent appraiser and alternative industry professionals. That testimony was met by the complaints of nearly a dozen locals, all of whom said that the farm would be an eyesore.
Included in that local testimony was the statement of Laurinburg Realtor Brenda Grubbs, who said that she worried the solar farm would affect the value of surrounding real estate.
Strata attorney Beth Trahos objected to Grubbs’ testimony, saying that real estate brokers do not qualify as “experts” according to statute. On the same grounds, she also objected to the testimony of other residents who spoke during the hearing.
At the conclusion of the hearing Councilman Kenton Spencer proposed that the permit be denied based on the testimony from Grubbs’ and also from Strata Solar’s appraiser, which he said was poorly supported.
“The key evidence to me was what (Strata Solar’s) appraiser said. He didn’t offer enough evidence to support (the assertion that property values would not be affected),” Spencer said at the time.
According to Mayor Tommy Parker, the appeal was anticipated by the city.
“We knew it was a possibility. I thought there was at least a fifty-fifty chance that they would appeal,” Parker said.
“When you look at it, saying that (the solar farm) is not in harmony with the area … to me that is the most difficult term to define, either way, as far as how you verify that or quantify it. That’s why I thought Councilman Spencer did a good job with his motion.
“In my mind, that was probably the best avenue to take if you were going to decide to deny the permit,” Parker said.