Court: Commissioners can’t be random in granting permits

There is a conversation to be had about solar farms, and if they are a benefit or a blemish, but one thing is no longer in dispute concerning them on a local level: Solar farms have increasingly begun to dot the landscape in Robeson County, putting us near or at the top in North Carolina for the sheer number of solar farms, in the neighborhood of a couple of dozen.

And we will be adding one more.

The benefit is plain: Solar farms produce clean energy, they generate income for property owners whose land, much of which used to produce income by growing tobacco, has been sitting idly, they don’t require electricity, sewer and water to prosper, and they generate property tax dollars for the county that can be put to work for all of us.

The blemish is also plain: Solar farms are ugly, though their scarring of the landscape can be mitigated with buffers.

We will be adding a solar farm locally because last week the N.C. Court of Appeals determined that the Robeson County Board of Commissioners had wrongfully denied a conditional-use permit that was needed to establish a solar farm on 40 acres of a 54.37-acre tract on St. Anna Church Road in Pembroke, a denial that was then upheld by a Superior Court judge.

Innovative 55 LLC and FLS Energy Inc. were the plaintiffs in the case, arguing that the county deviated from standards it applied in other permit cases in making the decision to deny the conditional-use permit. The commissioners apparently bought into to claims by opponents who live in the area that the solar farm was a safety hazard — huh? — and that it would devalue nearby properties.

The appeals court, in making its ruling, determined that there was not substantial evidence of either claim — and that the commissioners were applying more stringent standards here than when making previous evaluations of permit requests.

As always happens when the commissioners appear to favor one over another, there were charges that the denial was a political favor, but we don’t know by who and for whom — if that were the case. The owner of the property, Charles Andrews, invoked the R word when we interviewed him for a story, claiming discrimination because he is white, and pointing a finger at Commissioner Raymond Cummings, an American Indian. The site, by the way, is located in Noah Woods’ district, and while no announcement has been made, our guess is he will not file for re-election.

The cost to the county to defend this losing case in court was about $11,000 to the county, not a lot of money for a county with a budget of about $150 million a year, but enough to make a difference for a local nonprofit, the public library or perhaps to provide some schools to a lot of needy students. The bigger concern to us is that the county has been found guilty of applying different standards when making a determination on who gets a permit to operate a solar farm, which matters greatly to the landowner as well as the company wanting to profit from the sell of clean energy — and it took a lawsuit and the legal system to correct that wrong.

The county has opened the door to solar farms, eager to put the land to use, collect taxes, and be a partner in the push for green energy. But that door cannot be opened to some and randomly closed to others.