HAMLET — City leaders said “no” to solar energy Tuesday when they passed an ordinance that could keep solar farms — and possibly jobs and revenues — out of Hamlet indefinitely.
The decision followed a heated debate about safety issues, property values and aesthetics within the city limits as well as more rural properties still in the city but adjacent to residential land, where an energy company from Asheville purchased 50 acres with the intention of starting a solar farm.
The draft version of the ordinance lists types of solar equipment that can be located inside the city limits, but officals decided it did not go far enough to protect landowners’ rights after hearing presentations from two energy experts.
During the hearing, Maggie Clark, government affairs associate for the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, took the podium to critique parts of Hamlet’s draft ordinance citing information from a “best practices” document for solar energy.
“NCSEA and the N.C. Solar Center worked together to author the document during a six-month drafting process,” Clark said. “It was drafted using information from other states” as well as cities and towns in North Carolina that have adopted solar energy policies.
Clark expressed some concerns about the draft the council was considering. She also said that the requirements for a mature evergreen buffer, opaque or semi-opaque safety fencing and barbed wire around solar sites could deter people from building solar energy systems.
Greg Ness, a spokesman for FLS Energy, said the Asheville-based energy company owns property in Hamlet, located between N.C. 177 South and Freeman Mill Road where property is zoned residential agricultural.
FLS Energy wants to put at least 25 acres of solar panels on the property, Ness said.
People with homes near the land were not happy about that.
Ness said he was there to address some of the most common concerns communities have about solar energy systems.
“Regarding the noise level solar projects generate, I visited some of our solar farms and talked with engineers and designers and really, the only moving part is called the inverter,” Ness said. “It has a very small fan to cool the equipment inside the box. The sound of the inverter is kind of like going into the kitchen at night and hearing the soft hum of the refrigerator, it’s that nice, soft white noise.
“The other concern is glare. This one made me scratch my head a little, because the whole point of a project is to capture as much sunlight as possible. I’d consider that lost revenue, it’s a big ‘no-no’ in the industry. The panels are always black to help absorb as much energy as possible. It’s about the same glare you’d get off a windowpane or a lake.”
Councilman Tony Clewis asked Ness how many acres his company had purchased, and Ness told him the parcel was 50 acres, and that the company had bought enough panels to cover about 25 of those acres.
Councilman Jesse McQueen pointed out that the land Ness described was not located in Hamlet’s city limits.
Morphis recommended that the council adopt some form of a solar energy ordinance, explaining that if none exists, it opens the door for companies to come in and build with no regulations.
McQueen objected to the idea of a large project on land close to people’s homes.
“I just can’t see any place in the city limits that would be big enough to let you put up a solar farm,” he said. “So if we pass this ordinance, at the end of the day, someone could come in and apply and put these things in places where they would harm people. I can’t support it.”
Clewis supported McQueen on similar grounds.
“I’m like Jesse,” he said. “I don’t live too far from the area myself. I’m for all kinds of energy, but the aesthetics of it — the value of your property has probably just gone down. The problem I have is you (FLS Energy) making money has just lowered the value of my lot. I don’t know what we need to do, but we need to change something.”
Clark stood back up to address the council.
“This translates to taxable dollars for your city,” she said.
“It’s outside our corporate limits, so we aren’t going to get anything,” Clewis said.
“Well, then I’ll just talk about property values,” Clark said. “A study of properties in California shows they actually increased property values.”
Council members and some attendees laughed.
Councilman Johnathan Buie asserted his agreement with Clewis and McQueen.
“I appreciate all you’ve done and the work you put into your presentation,” Buie said. “But in Richmond County, no one’s going to buy property that that’s in the back of. I don’t know how people feel about it in California, but here in Richmond County, that’s just not going to work.”
Hamlet homeowner Wendy Massagee spoke up.
“I live in the affected area,” she said. “This property is almost a cutout with city limits wrapped almost all the way around it. If you go down Rice Street where I live and down to Freeman Mill Road, that’s in it, too. This area they’ve bought is in it.”
The council recessed briefly while Morphis drafted amendments to the proposed ordinance.
Morphis amended the document so that ground-mounted systems were completely removed from the ordinance, no Level 2 or Level 3 solar energy systems can be built on parcels zoned as agricultural residential and all systems will require conditional-use permits.
The council unanimously approved the amended ordinance.
In other business, council members met in closed session for about an hour and a half to discuss a personnel matter and an ongoing State Bureau of Investigation probe into the police department’s crushing of numerous seized vehicles. The council may consider hiring an independent investigator.
SBI spokeswoman Noelle Talley said Wednesday that agents are still investigating the matter.
Mayor Bill Bayless issued a proclamation on the 60th anniversary of Hamlet’s designation as a CSXT classification yard. CSX community affairs and safety associate Sandra Sea thanked the city for its continuing relationship with the railroad.
Information Technology Director Zach Garner offered a preview of the city’s new website integrated with social media, Google Calendar, and links to Richmond County’s GIS mapping system online.
City Manager Marchell David thanked her staff for their support and hard work while she was on personal leave.
Reach reporter Melonie Flomer at 910-817-2673.