Moore County LogoA 300-foot cellphone tower at Harris Crossroads and a commercial-scale solar farm on NC Highway 211 near Candor were both approved during the Thursday, February 6 regular meeting of the Moore County Planning Board.

Harvesting the sun

The five megawatt commercial solar facility will occupy 41.3 acres of a 46.7 acre tract on the south side of NC Highway 211 east of its intersection with Spicewood Road. The land, which lies in front of the Perdue feed mill, is currently used by Sandhills Turf for turf grass production.

Speaking for the property owners — all members of the extended Harris family, Attorney Bill Harris said the lease payments provided from the solar farm would provide family members with more income than is generated from harvesting turf grass. He added that his sister lives on a tract adjacent to the field.

This is the second Harris project to come before the Planning Board, which approved a similar project in November that will be located on Harris-owned land nearby on Samarkand Road.

Both facilities are rated at five megawatts, each producing enough electricity to serve 300 homes over the course of a year. The electricity generated will be sold to Duke Energy.

Harris said his family's land has attracted solar companies because of its proximity to high capacity power lines, which he attributed to the power needs of the nearby feed mills.

The project involves two companies that have been particularly active in solar energy development in the state: Strata Solar and Argand Energy Builders, each responsible for different aspects of the project.

Low impact installation and operation

Strata engineer Brent Niemann told the Board that the construction and operation of the solar facility would have minimal impact on the land and the surrounding area.

"We don't grade sites," Niemann said, explaining that the company instead uses logging nets to provide temporary construction roadways, so that no impervious surface is added to the site.

The project will use 576 racks to support the solar panels, the tops of which will be approximately nine feet off the ground. Niemann explained that the racks are driven into the ground mechanically, requiring minimal soil disturbance.

The fixed solar panels will be tilted to the south at 20 to 25 degrees.

Minor excavation will be required to install underground wiring connecting the panels to one of six inverters and to connect to the power grid. Niemann said all wiring will be underground until the point of connection the the grid.

The tract already has a healthy stand of bermuda grass; once construction is complete, it will be over-seeded and covered with straw.

Construction is anticipated to take three months, Niemann said, adding that "there is almost no traffic after construction." Inverter and solar panel performance is monitored via the internet, so that maintenance personnel can be dispatched only when a problem is detected.

The site will be protected with a six-foot-tall chain link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. That fence will be concealed with a vegetative buffer. On the north side of the tract, facing NC Highway 211, the plans call for a shade trees and understory shrubs. The buffer on the eastern and western sides of the property will utilize shrubs and shorter understory trees, so that the solar panels can catch the morning and evening sun.

The project's minimal permanent impact on the site is one of the attractions for the Harris family, Bill Harris told the Board — as is the fact that the family will retain ownership of the land.

"We are going to get this land back," Harris said. "We do not want to sell the property. I would love to see it come back to farming," once the solar farm lives out its productive life. "It is not going to be residential, because of the Perdue plant," Harris added.

No one spoke in opposition to the project, and the Planning Board unanimously approved the conditional use permit.

Tower approved for Harris Crossroads

The Board's approval of a conditional use permit for a 300-foot cellphone tower at Harris Crossroads was not unanimous. Board Member Todd Williams argued that the same coverage could be obtained through the use of the the 195-foot towers that are preferred in the County's Zoning Ordinance, and ultimately voted against the motion to approve.

But Planning Director Debra Ensminger reminded the Board that the applicant had fulfilled all the requirements of the ordinance, and Board Member Buck Mims argued that made it incumbent upon the Board to grant the permit.

"We have to look at our job, and our job is not always the same as our opinion," Mims said. "We set the laws, the ordinances; and, if you, as a business, you comply with those and you do exactly what you are supposed to do, then I can't vote to deny."

The tower in question — an American Towers, LLC project for the cellular carrier AT&T — was the subject of a December public hearing, which was reopened at the February 6 meeting.

Three key issues

The Board had deferred its decision pending the gathering of additional information on three aspects of the application. Ensminger ran down the list.

First, the existing wireless communications facilities ordinance requires that taller, non-concealed towers be located at least one mile from properties on the National Register of Historic Places.There was a question whether the Harris Crossroads tower was too close to the Bryant House, or to an adjacent lot also owned by the Moore County Historical Association.

A search of federal records established that the adjacent lot is not part of the registered property, and a formal survey established that the tower site is more than one mile from both the Bryant House and the closest corner of the tract on which it sits.

Second, the existing tower ordinance requires that the applicant demonstrate that there are no less intrusive options for siting the antennas — for instance, on a county-owned water tower. Ensminger said the applicant had established there were no such options.

Finally, because the need for 911 coverage in the area had been a subject of testimony from the applicant and members of the public, the Board had asked that it be provided with information on the coverage provided in the Harris Crossroads area by other cellular companies. Ensminger told Board members that that information "is not something that is required to be provided to you" under the ordinance.

The County's consultant on wireless communications facilities testified that the 300 foot tower was necessary to meet the needs of AT&T's cellular system, which operates with a lower signal strength than some other carriers.

"Their network architecture requires them to have greater height," he explained.

The tower will sit on an eighty by one hundred foot leased area within a 17.3 acre parcel at the intersection of Mt. Carmel Road and Dowd Road.

A motion to approve the application was made and approved in a seven to one vote, with Williams opposed. Board member Johnny Harris had recused himself from the hearing because he resides in the Harris Crossroads area and because he is related to many members of the extended Harris family.

The Board has substantially revised the rules governing Wireless Communications Facilities and incorporated that revision in a final draft of the Unified Development Ordinance. The County Board of Commissioners will hold a hearing and, potentially, a vote, on that document during their regular meeting on Tuesday, February 18.

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