The Newberry City Commission moved forward Monday on a plan to amend its solar land development regulations.
The regulations were on the agenda as a discussion item at the commission’s Monday meeting after citizen concerns over a solar farm expected to come to town.
Much of the commission’s conversation hinged on how much the city is allowed to restrict solar farms. Bryan Thomas, Newberry’s director of planning and economic development, told the commission any regulations on solar farms must be comparable to those applied to regular agricultural operations.
The commission first adopted land development regulations in 2019, making solar farms an allowable use “by right” in agricultural zoning districts.
Current regulations allow solar farms with all supporting facilities, requiring a minimum 10-foot buffer between the farm and its neighbors. No landscaping is required unless the operation includes buildings, but the facility must be enclosed by a chain link fence at least 6 feet high, and the city does have height restrictions for the farm’s elements.
The ordinance became more relevant to Newberry citizens recently, when Florida Renewable Partners (FRP) purchased a plot of land in southwest Newberry with the intention of starting a solar farm there.
Unhappy with the prospect of a field of solar panels in their backyards, neighbors came together to draft a letter. In August, they submitted the letter to the city, listing their concerns over the development and suggesting stronger restrictions on FRP and any other solar developers that might come to town.
Thomas addressed each point raised in the letter in a presentation to the board. Staff had brought the neighbors’ concerns to FRP, and Thomas’s presentation included the company’s response to each point.
The neighbors’ list included 10 requests, and FRP’s responses ranged from assurances that inverters will not make noise at night, to notes that 300-foot setbacks and 50-foot vegetative buffers would be financially burdensome and make the project unfeasible, to promises that environmentally responsible waste disposal is already part of the company’s practice.
“It’s great that Florida Renewable Partners is telling us they already do these things. And that’s wonderful. But we don’t have anything in writing,” citizen Jeff Holcomb told the commission. “They’re not required to be held to any of those standards, and what they tell us today could change by 2027.”
The city focused mainly on the issues of buffer zone width, where vegetative buffers would be required, and noise concerns. City manager Mike New noted that if the city must treat solar farms similarly to agricultural operations, it must consider that agriculture makes noise, too.
“I think that probably the biggest word of caution that I have on this matter is that we’re talking about agricultural zoning,” New said. “So the things that are allowed by right in agricultural zoning, that do have batteries, that do emit noises and those sorts of things. And I think that we should do all of the buffer things that the commission has suggested, but also want to remind the commission that these are activities that are happening in ag zoning, many of which could be objectionable, that the commission doesn’t have a say about.”
Another concern raised in the meeting was that, if the city changes its ordinance between when FRP purchased the land and when it is able to begin development, the company could take legal action against Newberry under the Bert J. Harris Private Property Protection Act of 1995. If the property owner can prove an undue burden was added to its intended land use, Newberry would be responsible for compensating the worth FRP originally expected to get from the property.
Thomas said FRP does not plan to start construction until 2027, and likely will not apply for its site and development plans until 2026. Citizens at the meeting questioned how FRP could be grandfathered into Newberry’s current ordinance if it has not yet submitted an application for development.
Mayor Jordan Marlowe said FRP plans to present more information about its operations at a commission meeting in November, but until then city staff will be looking into other cities’ solar land use ordinances.
Commissioner Tim Marden said he thinks Newberry made a mistake when it first passed the ordinance to encourage solar development, but now he hopes to help fix it to support the residents.
“Ultimately, we don’t own other people’s property,” Marden said. “We up here just kind of end up standing as referees. And I’ll commit to you all, especially on my own, that we’ll do our best to try to be the referee in this as much as possible.”