North Carolina policy generally leaves land use decisions in the hands of landowners. That said, the state, local, and federal governments can encourage or discourage specific landowner choices through the incentives or disincentives that they provide for particular uses, as well as through various forms of regulation, such as zoning rules and environmental restrictions. The balance of state-provided incentives for agricultural or solar energy production can, in some cases, be the determining factor in the decision to invest in solar or agriculture development. Also, the current grid infrastructure limits the sites feasible for solar development; it is only feasible to connect solar to certain locations in the grid and only to a limited density.
North Carolina has granted local governments the power to regulate land use in their jurisdictions, although state and federal rules apply in many circumstances. This means that local governments can manage land development with the needs of the community in mind, while also safeguarding natural resources. These land-use regulations can put limits on the allowed uses for some land and thus limit landowners’ options, in some cases affecting the viability of solar development. Some agricultural land has been exempted from certain regulations due to “grandfathering,” and changing the land use to solar may remove these exemptions, which can affect the ability to return the land to agricultural use in the future.
Land use regulations that may be relevant to solar development, depending on the location, can include (but are not limited to):
• Local zoning and land use rules (fencing, buffer zones between buildings and roads, border shrubs/trees, etc.)
• Floodplain development rules
• Erosion and sedimentation rules
• Permitting regarding military and air traffic impact
• Water quality rules (i.e. Neuse nutrient strategy rules, Coastal Area Management Act rules)
• USDA wetlands impact rules
To determine whether these and other rules are relevant for a potential solar development, landowners and solar developers should consult their local government planning departments, the Soil and Water Conservation Division of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office, and the USDA Farm Services Agency.