A permit to build a 942 acre solar farm in northern Pitt County was among three permits granted during the first in-person meeting of the county Board of Commissioners since March.
The board, meeting in the more spacious Mark Owens Jr. Auditorium at the Pitt County Agricultural Center, voted 6-2 to authorize the development of the energy complex along N.C. 11 and N.C. 30. Commissioner Ann Floyd Huggins received an excused absence.
SunEnergy1, a Mooresville-based company doing business as Bethel NC 11 Solar, wants to build the facility on multiple parcels of property outside of Bethel.
Planning and Development Director James Rhodes said about one-third of the property, 317 acres, is located in the county’s planning jurisdiction. The remaining property is located within the Town of Bethel’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. Bethel approved the project earlier this year.
The property under the county’s jurisdiction is located at the intersection of Big Oak and Ford roads and the northern side of N.C. 30, east of its intersection with N.C. 11 North.
The request was opposed by a pair of speakers. The first, Lawrence Watts, said he was having difficulty hearing and asked to be excused.
Concerns from Bill Lee centered on who would be responsible for removing the equipment once it became obsolete. Lee said, as a builder and developer, he knows people are looking to build in areas outside Greenville and believed questions about the future of the solar farm should be answered.
Beth Trahos, an attorney representing SunEnergy1 objected to Lee’s comments, saying they fell outside a quasi-judicial process. A second objection from Trahos earned a rebuke from Commissioner Tom Coulson.
He asked Pitt County Attorney Janis Gallagher if Trahos was permitted to interrupt another speaker. “Why does (Lee) have to be faced by a combative person?” Coulson asked. “It makes me suspicious.”
“It is appropriate Commissioner Coulson but it’s not something you typically see,” Gallagher said. “We don’t typically have attorneys involved in our quasi-judicial hearings, ours are usually much more informal.”
Commissioner Alex Albright said Watts had emailed him about his objections, which were related to state rules and not actions controlled by the county.
Commissioner Beth Ward said farmland owners near the site were invited to public forms held by the Town of Bethel and many supported the project. “It’s a clean type of industry that doesn’t interfere with farming,” she said.
Ward also said her husband’s family has property near the site.
Ward was asked if she needed to recuse herself from the vote because of the connection. She said no because her family isn’t involved in the project.
Coulson and Mary Perkins-Williams voted against issuing the conditional-use permit. Ward, Chris Nunnally, Melvin McLawhorn, Michael Fitzpatrick and Lauren White voted to issue the permit.
Rhodes said the land in the county’s jurisdiction must have a 50-foot setback from property lines and 100-foot setback from any residence. That setback is extended to 150 feet for placement of inverters, devices that convert energy collected by the solar panels into alternating current.
All stream features present on-site are subject to a 50-foot riparian buffer, unless the state Division of Water Quality or the Pitt County Planning Department exempt them from the Tar-Pamlico buffer regulations.
The state transportation department will require driveway permits, Rhodes said.
A real estate appraiser presented the commissioners with a report saying the project wouldn’t negatively affect neighboring property values.
Chris Sandifer, an engineering consultant with the project, spoke about his experience as a property owner leasing land to a solar company to assure commissioners that no toxins are released by the solar panels.
Linda Nwadike, SunEnergy1 director of permitting and community relations, said a double row of trees will be planted along major highways and homes. If the solar complex is decommissioned and equipment removed, it can return to agricultural use.
No one spoke in opposition to two other conditional use permit requests. Both were approved unanimously.
Tyronsa Pollard wants to expand her existing child care business, Creative Learning Day Care Center, 903 Katherine’s Place in the Belvoir Township, by adding a mobile classroom unit.
This is considered a major modification of her existing conditional-use permit so she must get a new permit. Pollard said she isn’t enrolling more students.
“The students I have, they are growing bigger and the current room I have is getting smaller,” she said.
American Materials Company plans to expand its sand mine operation at the intersection of Stokes and Old River roads.
The company was issued a permit in 2012 to operate a sand mine of nearly 236 acres. So far near 67 acres are being excavated.
The proposed expansion will add an additional 50 acres to the permitted area, with an additional 17.75 acres of excavation area.
Part of the proposed excavation area falls in the previous required buffer zone.
The conditions approved by the commissioners require the mine to get approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have a 50-foot riparian buffer on all stream features present on the site or obtain documentation showing they are exempted from the Tar-Pamlico buffer regulations.
Members of the East Carolina University Chancellor Search Committee reported that they hope to make their recommendation for ECU’s next chancellor by November.
Chairman Vern Davenport said during the Friday meeting that the search started in December with a kickoff, constituent forums and surveys. In February, a leadership statement was released and the advertising process started.
The committee’s efforts were paused in March due to COVID-19. It resumed the search in June with application materials presented to the committee, Davenport said.
“We’re going to interview candidates throughout the fall here and hopefully make a recommendation in late October, November, within that time frame to the Board of Trustees, which will then obviously go to the (UNC System) President Peter Hans and onto the Board of Governors,” said Davenport, who also is chairman of the Board of Trustees.
The committee is working to replace Cecil Staton, who stepped down in May 2019.
Davenport said he has been pleased with the strength of the pool of potential candidates. He told committee members they must not talk to the media about the candidates or engage on social media with the applicants.
“The most important thing I convey at this point and time is this process has and must continue to be confidential to protect the applicants information,” Davenport said.
He said members had to announce in closed session if they had a conflict of interest or an appearance of a conflict with any of the potential candidates.
The meeting moved into closed session for more than two hours with no subsequent action.
Questions about funding law enforcement, Medicaid expansion and a new medical school drew contrasts between the candidates in the State House District 9 contest during a virtual forum on Tuesday.
Republican State Rep. Perrin Jones, who was appointed to the District 9 seat last year, and Democratic challenger Brian Farkas sparred during the online event hosted by the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce.
District 9 encompasses eastern Pitt County and includes Grimesland, Simpson and portions of Greenville and Winterville. It is one of three state House seats in the county with contested races in the Nov. 3 election.
The candidates were asked how they would have voted on the state’s 2019-21 biennium budget that Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed, an action the General Assembly failed to override.
The budget included $215 million to build a new facility for the Brody School of Medicine, funding for a food commercialization center in Ayden and utility improvements in Bethel.
The governor’s vetoed the budget because it did not include Medicaid expansion and would not hold subsequent talks about its inclusion. House Speaker Tim Moore offered to discuss expansion once the budget was approved but Senate leader Phil Berger signaled his chamber wouldn’t take up an expansion vote.
“I am not going to speculate on how I would have voted; I’m not in office I don’t think that’s fair to ask. I will say I would be a champion for ECU,” Farkas said.
“It’s kind of amazing I’m being blamed for not passing a budget and I’m not in the legislature,” Farkas said. Current legislators need to be accountable and answer the question, he said, including why the Republican leadership did not compromise with the governor.
“One thing about consensus building is you need to understand when you have a good deal,” said Jones, who was appointed to the House District 9 seat in September 2019, after the governor vetoed the budget. “This was a good deal for Greenville and Pitt County. This was an opportunity lost for Greenville and Pitt County.”
The candidates were asked where Medicaid expansion fell among their priorities. They also were asked for “common sense, cost-effective” solutions to fill the state’s health care coverage gap.
Farkas said Medicaid expansion has been implemented in states with both Democratic and Republican leadership. About 13,000 Pitt County residents and an estimated $113 million in revenue would be brought in the county if expansion was implemented, he said.
Rural hospitals have been left teetering without expansion dollars and Vidant Health’s leadership has urged elected leaders to develop a reimbursement strategy.
No other business in the state could do a third of its work for free, Farkas said, but hospitals are required to provide care without funding.
“This is one area where there may be some consensus between Mr. Farkas and myself,” Jones, an anesthesiologist, said. “I’m for expanding Medicaid in a responsible way.” Farkas’ proposal for expansion is irresponsible, he said.
“Quite frankly it’s much too simplistic and the answer to a very complicated system,” he said.
Republican leadership has not brought expansion proposals from party members to a vote.
Jones said the medical system needs to be reformed to focus on the value of care given by promoting systems where providers form networks to provide care. Farkas said the medical system needs to focus on preventive care.
Farkas frequently referenced televised campaign ads that he said have made false claims about his views on calls to defund police departments in the response to the killing of black men and women by officers. The candidates were asked where they stood on the topic of “police defunding.”
“It’s unfortunate that Perrin Jones and the (House Speaker Tim Moore) have chosen to lie and go negative on this issue,” Farkas said. “I have never in my life said I wanted to defund the police. I’ve never in my life said I want to weaken police. … All I have ever talked about was bringing accountability to law enforcement.”
Farkas said he wanted to see more money put toward training police in de-escalation techniques and toward the purchase of body cameras for officers to wear.
“The reality is the status quo, where we are at, is wrong. I don’t know why Rep. Jones is OK with keeping things as they are because people are getting hurt. Battle lines are being drawn and something different must be done,” Farkas said.
Jones said if Farkas is against police defunding he should return a $5,400 donation from a group called “Future Now,” a progressive political action committee.
“The fact is in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s unfortunate death there was what I consider a moment of true nation introspection where there were a number of people who wanted to see substantive change in how police interact work and interact with the community,” Jones said. “Unfortunately the legitimate peaceful protest that a number of people undertook were usurped by people who wanted to add violence to the mix.”
Jones accused Farkas of not renouncing the violence that occurred in downtown Greenville on May 31 following a peaceful protest over George Floyd’s death. The focus should be on bail bond reform and providing substance abuse assistance to people in jail, Jones said.
He said a Farkas proposal to establish a statewide police oversight board is wrong because the entity could be politicized and promote Monday morning quarterbacking that would encourage more violence.
Farkas said organizations like the state bar and N.C. Board of Architecture have committees that review complaints. A statewide police review board would eliminate the need for each community to have their own review board, which would save money.
The candidates were asked how they would help educators manage workload expectations created by having to prepare lessons for both in-person and virtual instruction to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Farkas said the limitations of internet capacity mean student needs aren’t being met so he wants to pursue the expansion of broadband internet access.
Teacher pay needs to be raised, the N.C. Teaching Fellows scholarship needs to be restored and lottery revenues need to be rededicated to education spending.
Jones said the state Department of Health and Human Services has to come up with an effective testing and tracing program so schools can reopen.
The candidates were asked how the state should position itself to avoid harm if exports to other countries drop because of the pandemic damaging their economies.
“Quite frankly I think what we are going to see is an economic realignment of the states with those that are able to open in the safest, most efficient way possible being the ones that are most prosperous,” Jones said.
The state’s current COVID-19 response is jeopardizing its ability to reopen and gain normalcy, he said.
Jones supports re-establishing the state’s manufacturing base by bringing industries that moved overseas, like some pharmaceutical companies, back to the state.
Farkas said it’s the federal government that failed the state “because people did not get the information they needed and the shared sacrifice wasn’t instilled in us from the top.”
Grants and low-interest loans targeting small businesses should be created.
Farkas said he specialized in emergency management when he worked for the National Institutes of Health and can use that experience to plan for the state’s economic recovery.
Greenville Planning and Zoning Commission is weighing a change to the code that permits golf club communities in an effort to create farm-focused neighborhoods.
The commission received a presentation on “agrihoods” during its Tuesday meeting. It also was presented with a request to approve a preliminary plat for an addition to an existing subdivision.
Because the commission met remotely and additional time for public comments is required, its members will vote on the two items when it reconvenes at 6 p.m. on Thursday for another virtual meeting.
Read more about the meeting today at www.reflector.com or in Thursday’s edition of The Daily Reflector.