Court says county erred in denial of solar-farm permit

By: By Bob Shiles -
Patrick Pait
Raymond Cummings

PEMBROKE — A solar farm project in Pembroke has been given a shot of judicial energy.

The N.C. Court of Appeals has overturned a Robeson County Superior Court judge’s ruling upholding the county Board of Commissioners’ decision not to issue a conditional-use permit that would allow the establishment of a solar farm on 40 acres of a 54.37-acre tract on St. Anna Church Road in Pembroke.

The commissioners in late 2015 denied a conditional-use permit to Innovative 55 LLC and FLS Energy Inc. that would allow for the establishment of the solar farm. On March 11, 2016, Superior Court Judge James Gregory Bell ruled against a court challenge by the energy company that claimed the permit should have been granted because all county regulations allowing the issue of a conditional-use permit had been met.

A three-member Appeals Court panel heard the company’s appeal in Fayetteville on April 26, and issued a ruling Tuesday saying the evidence presented shows no reason the permit should not be issued. Evidence presented by project opponents, who expressed concern about safety and devaluation of adjoining property, was not “substantial evidence” supported by experts, according to the judges.

The court ordered the permit to be issued. The ruling was written by Judge John M. Tyson. Chief Judge Linda M. McGee and Judge Ann Marie Calabria concurred with the ruling.

“The Court of Appeals has now rendered its opinion,” County Attorney Patrick Pait said. “It has reversed the decision of the commissioners and instructed the board to issue the conditional-use permit. I will address this with the board and discuss with commissioners any other possibilities that may exist at this point in time.”

Pait and Whitfield Gibson, a specialist in appellate court work with the Raleigh law firm of Manning, Fulton and Skinner, represented the county in the case.

Charles Andrews, owner of the property where the solar farm will be located, said Tuesday that plans are for the project to move forward. He will be leasing his property to FLS.

As a taxpayer he said he finds it difficult to understand what motivated the commissioners to deny the permit request while approving permits allowing solar farms on other properties throughout the county.

“I’m still a taxpayer in Robeson County, and I can’t understand the mentality of the commissioners not to allow a solar farm, which is clean energy, provides jobs, and generates lots for the tax base,” said Andrews, who now lives in South Carolina at the beach.

The project will result in his property generating between $20,000 and $30,000 a year in property taxes, Andrews said.

“The county spent a lot of money to fight a situation in which it could have gotten a lot of money,” he said.

Andrews told The Robesonian that he believes the original denial of the permit may have been “discrimination.”

Andrews, who is white, said one of the strongest opponents of the project on the Board of Commissioners was Raymond Cummings, an American Indian. He also noted that one of the “prominent” residents of Pembroke and a strong opponent of the project owns adjacent property to where the solar farm will be located.

Cummings on Tuesday referred to the court ruling as “the legal process at work.”

“The community had a lot of concerns about this project, and we try to represent our communities,” Cummings said.

The commissioner said proponents of the solar farm had a right to appeal the Superior Court judge’s ruling.

“We have to follow the rule of law,” Cummings said. “We have to obey the law of the land.”

Patrick Pait Pait

Raymond Cummings Cummings

By Bob Shiles

Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.

Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.