Public pulls the plug on solar farm

By: By Chrysta Carroll -

ELIZABETHTOWN — “And don’t come back!” was how guests said good-bye to representatives of South River Land Company at Monday night’s Elizabethtown Town Council meeting after the council voted to nix a solar farm.

Among the roughly 60 guests at Monday night’s council meeting were South River representatives, town staff, interested stakeholders, and a large contingent of residents from the area surrounding the proposed solar farm on M&M Street.

Fire Chief Nick West laid out six requests from a fire department viewpoint, including ensuring adequate access in case of an emergency, training for the fire department in how to respond to a solar farm emergency, and a shutdown plan of action. Later in the hearing, South River representatives said all of the requests — with the exception of the training — were standard practice in the industry.

Newly hired town employee Rod Fritz spoke of the existing problems with drainage and flooding, and, despite an objection from South River attorney Beth Trahos, read a letter from engineer Robert Armstrong suggesting that, if the plan were approved, improvements would need to be made to a pipe under Richardson Drive. Later in the meeting, a company engineer tried to assure the board that flooding would be less problematic with a solar farm than with residential development, because the company would plant grass and vegetation buffers.

Resident Jerry McKoy spoke on behalf of other residents, saying, “My greatest concern is health. We don’t want to be guinea pigs and find out later about long-term health problems and ADHD. (South River) would have made their money and moved on, and we don’t want to be another Flint, Mich.”

The room erupted in applause.

Real estate developer Gene Merrittt told the board the farm was incompatible with development in the area and asked the board pointedly, “Would you want to live beside it? If not, why would you force any neighborhood to do so?”

The room again erupted in applause.

Each person who spoke was questioned, albeit politely, by Trahos, but the majority of guests were clearly on the side of detractors of the plan and either applauded or provided vocal agreement with points in their favor and laughed and mumbled when company representatives stumbled. At one point, Mayor Sylvia Campbell reminded guests to maintain order.

Several South River representatives addressed issues brought forth, saying there would be no negative impact on property values, no noise, no health concerns, and that the distance from the closest home to a panel was greater than the average. They brought forth engineers, appraisers, and experts on the topics and countered arguments about negative impacts by citing a study done in 1997 that showed no affect on health.

When Councilman Herman Lewis voiced concern for the third time, Trahos said to the board, “I just want to remind you that if you have your mind already made up, it’s not appropriate for you to participate in the decision.”

In closing the hearing, Trahos told the board the company had met its burden to provide facts, but the other side had not, and what evidence was presented, had been presented under objection.

“You are required to look at the evidence presented, not what you have heard or read otherwise, and to approach this with an open mind — not whether it’s popular or not, but have we met the finding of facts?” Trahos said. “We ask you to follow the law.”

Lewis made a motion to deny the proposal because it would endanger health and safety, because it would substantially devalue property, and because the location and character were not in harmony with the area.

After the motion was seconded, Rufus Lloyd, Paula Greene and Ricky Leinwand joined Lewis in voting to disapprove the proposal. Councilman Howell Clark abstained from voting. Dicky Glenn was not present.

After the vote, Trahos declined to comment on the company’s future plans, saying only, “This is not what we typically see.”

Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.

By Chrysta Carroll