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Editorial: In rural Beaufort County, solar and conservation find common ground

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Dominion Energy Seabrook Solar faciltity Beaufort County

The Beaufort County Open Land Trust signed a conservation easement on a 628-acre piece of property, which will be used as a large new solar farm. Provided. 

Are vast solar arrays a type of development or a way to protect land from development? Just south of Charleston, solar advocates and land conservationists think the latter is closer to the truth, and we concur, at least in that case.

The Beaufort County Open Land Trust recently agreed to a unique conservation easement for 628 acres in the ACE Basin. Seabrook Land Enterprises LLC, the landowner, is an affiliate of Adger Solar. The pact is being billed as the first such easement in the state.

As with most easements, this new deal sets limits on the property’s current and future use, specifically prohibiting intensive developments such as strip malls or industrial operations. But it also allows the land to be used as a large solar farm. As Andrew Brown reported Monday, the contract is expected to serve as a model for other large landowners and solar farm developers.

The Beaufort County property was formerly a vegetable farm off U.S. Highway 21; Dominion Energy has signed a lease with Adger and plans to use the solar farm’s electricity to power properties in Charleston and Beaufort counties. Whenever the solar panels are removed, the restrictions on the land’s commercial development will remain. The property will never see much paving, and the easement also requires a buffer to screen the solar farm from the highway.

Some might find a vast field of large solar panels to be a sort of light industrial development not necessarily the same as the farmland, wetlands and forests that conservation easements typically protect. But compared to most other types of development, a solar farm is relatively green: It’s readily reversible, would retain most of its stormwater and would help reduce emissions.

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Solar farms are rather new and complicated territory in the land conservation world, said Joshua Lynsen of the Land Trust Alliance. “Most conservation easements in place today were finalized before such developments began considering conserved lands as a possible site,” he said. “Conservation easements that are silent on the matter are, generally speaking, unable to host such developments.”

New easements may permit solar farms, however, and the alliance has created a series of tips on the topic. An overarching point is nonprofits need to evaluate the appropriateness of a solar farm on conserved land on a case-by-case basis. There is much to consider, including the landowner’s goals, tax ramifications and impacts of associated infrastructure such as lines, pipes, roads, pads and water. “There’s growing interest in this topic, certainly,” Mr. Lynsen said.

The new example in Beaufort County was discussed at a recent meeting of 28 land conservancies in the state, according to Charles Lane, chairman of the ACE Basin Task Force. “It sets a precedent for future solar farms, limits sprawl and prompts good, strong buffers,” Mr. Lane told Mr. Brown.

Such deals could help South Carolina realize its solar potential. While a national solar consulting group recently ranked North Carolina second among all 50 states in terms of its solar energy potential over the next five years, South Carolina came in 23rd. Of course, there are many other regulatory factors aside from easements that go into how “solar friendly” a state is, but as our understanding continues to grow about the link between carbon emissions, climate change and rising seas, every little bit helps.

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