County Commission postpones second vote on joint ordinance with Memphis to regulate solar farms

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Noting rural concerns, members of the Shelby County Commission’s Land Use, Transportation & Codes Committee postponed a second vote on a joint ordinance with the Memphis City Council that overhauls regulations on solar farms during its Wednesday, April 3 meeting.

Council Chair Miska Clay Bibbs is expected to request the council to delay a scheduled April 9, vote on their ordinance.

A second commission vote, meanwhile, is expected during the next committee meeting. 

Despite the delay, a possible solution to iron-out concerns among unincorporated areas of northern Shelby County was quickly provided during the meeting.

“I don’t think we would need to withdraw this and start over,” said John Zeanah, Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development. “I think if this item were remanded back to the land use control board to allow us to essentially change the focus and do additional work necessary to make it an overlay.” 

An overlay district is a geographical carve-out. It allows prohibitions or expansions of regulations to certain industries. Adult-oriented establishments are an example. 

Although there are no overlays in rural Shelby County, there are several within Memphis. These include neighborhoods in Midtown and the University area.

Special use requirements for sites 20 acres or larger are already in the ordinance. The “minimum standards” starting point will allow the commission to consider “unique circumstances,” said Zeanah.

Their inclusion allows the commission – or the council – to approve proposals on a “case-by-case.”

Sticking points came from property owners within the county’s Conservation and Agriculture District. Many of their demands exceeded the “generally applicable approach” of the proposal.

They could also “effectively exclude utility-scale solar,” from further expansion in Memphis. Currently, the Unified Development Code sizes the facilities at 100 sq. ft. The proposal expands the definition to any solar facility larger than 20 acres. 

The constituent requests include capping the number of utility-scale plants within the district to five sites. Without an overlay district, the cap would apply throughout Memphis and Shelby County. It could also create legal problems.

Another demand was a three-mile gap between solar facilities. 

“I understand the goal of those who submitted these questions is, they don’t want solar facilities kind of fitting together like Tetris…” said Zeanah. “The three-mile distance…has the effect of almost restricting these things to a degree that is just too onerous.”

Instead, a half-mile distance is the recommendation of the division of planning and development. It would be the largest buffer zone contained in the code.

“I saw a few right off the bat that wouldn’t work….,” admitted Amber Mills. 

However, the District 1 Commissioner was enthusiastic about Zena’s proposed amendment. Mills’ motion was seconded by Commissioner Britney Thorton.

Over the next week, the ordinance will head back to the control board for fine-tuning, followed by a vote. Commissioners will also meet behind closed doors to address potential legal concerns related to an earlier vote. 

In late February, the commission rejected a proposed 1,500-acre solar farm in Millington located along the conservation and agriculture district. Many of the issues that led to its failure are addressed in the ordinance. A lawsuit is expected. 

“I think that would be better suited for an executive session,” said Shelby County deputy attorney Marcy Ingram.

In addition to code updates, the proposed ordinance aligns decommissioning with state law. The landowner would be on the hook for cleanup costs, unless the property is owned by the solar company. The costs would be paid upfront.

Last year, commissioners requested a study from the board on the impact of utility-scale solar development. The November 2023 report revealed current standards are outdated and insufficient to “appropriately” regulate the solar industry in Shelby County. 

It also recommended their expansion.

“Large-scale solar projects have a positive environmental and economic impact both countywide and locally.”

The ordinance is sponsored by Commissioner Shante Avante.