Sean McHugh | Eclectic Autodidact: Viral story misses town's real issues


By now I'm sure you've heard the story of Woodland, N.C., the town that banned solar farms out of fears that they would use up all the sun. The Woodland town council rejected rezoning for a proposed solar farm in town, and then went on to place a moratorium on all solar farm projects. A man who spoke at the meeting expressed concern that the solar farm would suck up all the energy from the sun. Get out your phone and find an article about it. You'll laugh.

There's a story here, but the story is not "Idiot Hick Town Fears Sun, Fire" as most of the articles that have picked up on it like to focus on. Locating the original story in the area's tri-weekly newspaper reveals that this is a tragedy reported as a farce, much like how early clickbait reviews of Hamlet summed up the finale as "Confused Monarch Slays Three, Self in Wacky Poison Mix-up!"

The quote about solar panels sucking up the sun's energy was not actually a direct quotation; in context seems like it might have been metaphorical as the speaker went on to discuss how businesses weren't coming to the area. Another speaker however, reported as a retired science teacher, said some legitimately crazy nonsense, like how solar panels prevented photosynthesis in plants and suggested in a roundabout way that they cause cancer.

That's a special kind of ridiculous, but are we of Western Massachusetts really able to honestly criticize a small rural community opposing a new energy development? Do we not remember the endless fights over the Florida Mountain windmill projects? I'm sure there are people within our county who still believe that windmill syndrome is a real thing.

Also, I think anyone who has ever been to a town meeting or other public committee session has witnessed someone get up to speak who was completely out of touch with reality, touting some tenuous and overblown claim to authority and so driven by their own furious emotion that they can't grasp the basic tenets of logic. That's just a feature of this brand of democracy. I recall sitting in a Williamstown town meeting once, in which a man came to the microphone and launched into a tirade on the edge of tears, the thesis of which was essentially "How dare you, sir!" until someone from the board politely interrupted him and explained they hadn't gotten to that item on the agenda yet. "Oh!" he said, and went back to his seat.

We really shouldn't paint the whole town with that same brush, even if the town is small enough that the brush represents a quarter of a percent of the population.

One important thing to keep in mind is the town of Woodland already has accepted three solar farms. So this isn't a story of ignorant luddites; it's about a town that realized the only thing about it that attracts investment is the copious amounts of empty space, and found itself discomforted by that fact.

Here is some perspective: Woodland is a really small town, roughly the size of our own Florida. It's in a county half the area of Berkshire County, but with less than a sixth the population. The Town of Woodland website lists only 17 businesses in town, one of which is the town hall itself, and 10 of which are visible from the front door of said town hall.

This is a town that is staring its own mortality in the face and frantically, perhaps foolishly, lashed out at something it could reach. This is a story about people afraid of declining property values who don't have a surplus of empty mills to turn into art museums. And yes, also how a former science teacher doesn't seem to get some basic principles of science.

It's pretty easy to mock the education of the rural South, so much so that I've avoided cheap shots this time because there's no challenge, but we really aren't that different. For example, I should cut off one stereotype that I know was in your head when you read the story (as it was in mine): Woodland is in a heavily Democratic county. Its district hasn't elected a Republican to Congress since 1883.

Interestingly, a little research reveals that the petition to prevent the rezoning appears to have been lead by a former member of the town council (gleaned from the town's website, which is at least one election cycle out of date). So, I imagine there's a bit of vicious small town politics underlying the issue as well. I'm sure we can relate to that as well.


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