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‘Don’t like telling them no’: York County, nowhere to put $35M project, looks skyward

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Ocean Springs resident Matt Campbell explains how a bi-directional meter measures electricity flow in two directions. Campbell and his wife, Lea, are able to sell the excess energy that their solar panels produce to their utility company.
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Ocean Springs resident Matt Campbell explains how a bi-directional meter measures electricity flow in two directions. Campbell and his wife, Lea, are able to sell the excess energy that their solar panels produce to their utility company.

Money could be coming to York County, steady as a sunrise. And some leaders are asking why it isn’t.

“If we’ve got somebody wanting to invest $30 or $40 million in the county,” said York County Councilman Robert Winkler, “I don’t like telling them no.”

Winkler, chairman of the county’s economic development committee, said solar farms could be a new wave of county tax revenue.

“There are some businesses starting to look at York County for potential solar farms, and as alternative energy grows more and more, it’s something that’s popping up more and more,” he said.

Except solar farms are not allowed.

“We don’t have a zoning ordinance that allows a solar farm,” Winkler said.

Winkler said he knows of one project where a potential buyer would invest $35 million to put a solar farm on 270 acres.

“We’re telling them they can’t do it, because we don’t have zoning that allows solar farms,” Winkler said.

Zoning regulations list all sorts of commercial, residential and other land uses. In York County, if a specific use of land isn’t listed within a specific zoning category, it’s technically illegal without a variance or appeal.

York County has been working through a variety of changes and updates in recent months, tackling potential land uses from wineries and breweries to quarries and event venues.

Solar farms are another issue, one predating most county zoning rules, which stretch back several decades.

York County isn’t the only government dealing with rules in need of update.

“There (are) several ordinances by cities and local governments within the state of South Carolina that have already implemented it,” said York County Manager Bill Shanahan. “So things that are being approved are already in existence.”

Lancaster County Council approved two solar farms in March. Polaris Solar petitioned for a 20-acre site, and Shem Solar asked for 16 acres. Both sites are east of Lancaster. Both were approved by 4-3 votes.

Questions arose on how long solar farms last — it’s typically 25 years — and what type of equipment is left behind if a farm leaves.

In recent months, Lancaster’s Council discussed how and where to allow solar farms. On Oct. 22, Lancaster County will consider an economic incentive program specific to solar programs.

A year ago, Chester County also worked through a change to define and allow solar farms.

York County Councilman Chad Williams says the county can take a look at other areas to determine what might work here.

“I’m not always a big fan of doing what other counties do,” Williams said, “but in this case, I think this is the perfect example of no reason to reinvent the wheel.”

Solar farms in York County aren’t an entirely new idea.

In spring, York Electric Cooperative inquired with the county about a 4-acre site near York.

About the same time, Tega Cay wrapped up revisions to its zoning code including definitions for, among other items, solar panel farms. Last fall, the city brought up solar issues in trying to determine the difference between solar panels and solar farms.

“We had nothing in the code to address it,” city planning director Susan Britt said at the time.

Last month, a potential deal fell through that would have partnered York Electric Cooperative with the Rock Hill school district to put a solar farm at the district’s Applied Technology Center. Conversations on that project involved a 25-year lease.

County leaders say solar panels on homes, used to generate power for the home, are considered part of the structure and wouldn’t be involved in the solar farm discussion. Solar farms are larger areas, lined with solar power devices used to generate power and send it elsewhere.

Councilman Michael Johnson doesn’t see solar farms in the same light as large zoning code re-writes, which can take months or years.

“You look at most of these zoning ordinances and they list out 100 things you can do in them,” he said. “It’d seem like you just add No. 101: solar farm. It’s not a rewriting of an entire ordinance.”

David Hudspeth, community and environmental services director for York County, said it isn’t quite that simple. There would be the issue of which zoning districts might allow it, what other rules might accompany solar farms and the three votes needed to finalize a change. Still, he said, the process shouldn’t be long or redirect too much planning staff time.

“I’ve never tried to regulate a solar farm before, so I don’t really know for sure,” he said.

Johnson agrees the process could be completed quickly.

“This is just to slip in ‘solar panel farm’ and rolling on our merry way,” he said.

As for the difference solar panels or solar farms may make during power outages, it depends on setup. Even home solar panels may not keep the lights on during an outage, if they’re plugged directly into the larger power grid. Typically, they cut off to avoid sending power across damaged lines.

Homes with converter or storage systems could remain empowered using solar.

But it’s the farms that are bringing up larger questions.

Council member Christi Cox and William “Bump” Roddey say allowing farms as special exceptions in certain zoning districts may be the way to go. Then Council could decide on a case-by-case basis, similar to the public use designations needed for cell towers, water towers and trash sites.

Williams said he supports the way zoning works in listing what should be allowed, rather than listing only what isn’t.

“It’s a whole lot easier to defend and manage,” he said. “I guess the flip side is, if it’s not specifically restricted then it’s allowed. You can have just as many problems with that approach.”

Winkler said it’s important to keep zoning code updated, so the county doesn’t miss out on economic opportunities.

“What else is going to come up that somebody is going to (propose), a business that we’ve never even thought of, and we’re going to be telling them no, you can’t do it?” he said.

John Marks: jmarks@fortmilltimes.com; @JohnFMTimes
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