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Helping Counties Plan for the Impacts of Utility-Scale Solar Facilities

In 2016, Mecklenburg County received two utility-scale solar facility special exception permits (SEP) for the Bluestone and the Grasshopper applications. The Bluestone application outlined a 332.5-acre, 49.9 MW facility while the Grasshopper application described a 946-acre, 80 MW facility. At the time, the County’s Comprehensive Plan did not address guidelines for utility-scale solar facilities. Given both the size and scale of the proposed projects, there were numerous land use impacts that needed to be evaluated.

Without guidelines in the Comprehensive Plan, it was difficult to determine exactly how the projects would impact Mecklenburg County’s growth areas; prime agricultural land, habitat, soil erosion, and other environmental factors; and mitigate these and other potentially negative effects. At this point, the County sought outside expertise and hired Gentry Locke Attorneys and The Berkley Group for assistance in evaluating the County’s land use tools relative to utility-scale solar facilities.

After conducting research on the requirements set forth for utility-scale solar by the Department of Environmental Quality, The Berkely Group produced a final report for the County of Mecklenburg. The final report included a methodology for assessing the immediate and future impacts of utility-scale solar energy as well as recommendations for incorporating utility-scale solar into the County’s Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance.

Ultimately, Mecklenburg County’s Comprehensive Plan was amended with The Berkley Groups’ recommendations to specifically address land use impacts of solar facilities. The amendments included identifying major electrical facilities, developing growth area boundaries, recommending additional public review opportunities, creating locational parameters, and identifying mitigation strategies. Through these amendments, local officials can better evaluate solar facilities within the context of their Comprehensive Plan and other County policies and regulations.

In addition to Comprehensive Plan amendments, Mecklenburg’s Zoning Ordinance also needed updating. While the Zoning Ordinance did address solar facilities, The Berkley Group determined it was insufficient to adequately regulate larger scale facilities. For example, pre-application meetings are an effective tool, and planners can require applicants requesting Special Exception Permits (also called special or conditional use permits) to follow certain guidelines such as: posting a public notice, outlining development standards, coordinating local emergency services, and properly planning for decommissioning. Similar performance measures can further mitigate potential, adverse impacts.

While the land use impacts of utility-scale solar facilities on Mecklenburg County may be considered unusual in number, size, concentration, and scope, all utility-scale solar facilities impact land use in some way; therefore, The Berkley Group understands that it is important to explicitly state specific criteria that reflects the community’s values and concerns in both a County’s Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinance in order to properly guide the development of renewable energy facilities.

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