Residents express opposition to proposed solar farm at public hearing; P&ZC tables issue for 30 days
By Ken Gustafson
AMERICUS — On Thursday, several residents who live in the communities of Cobb, DeSoto, and Leslie expressed their opposition to the construction of a proposed 9,661.18-acre solar farm to be built in that area at a public hearing at the Sumter County Courthouse.
Sumter County Planning and Zoning Commission (P&ZC) Chairman Steve Broadhurst asked if there were any people who would like to come before the commission to express their reasons for being in favor of or against the building of the solar farm. Also, representatives from Americus Solar LLC, the company that would be in charge of building the solar farm, were able to voice their reasons as to why it would be economically beneficial and environmentally safe for the county. Americus Solar LLC is a subsidiary of Invenergy LLC, a renewable energy development company based in Chicago.
The area on which the proposed solar farm is to be built was divided up into “parcels” by the P&ZC. These parcels or parts of the 9,661.18 acres are areas in which the residents who were at the public hearing own property. There were eight parcels that the board had to look at as far as considering a “request for conditional use of a solar farm” by Americus Solar LLC.
Residents who live along or near each parcel had the opportunity to speak for or against the solar farm being constructed near their properties. Broadhurst said that a resident could speak on behalf of each parcel for a maximum time of 10 minutes.
Matt Levine, a renewable development manager with Invenergy, asked the P&ZC if he could speak on behalf of all parcels as a whole, and Broadhurst granted his request. Levine began his presentation regarding the benefits of having the solar farm. “We’re asking for conditional use of solar within agriculturally-zoned parcels for eight parcels totaling 9,661.18 acres,” he said. He said Georgia has begun to be a leader in renewable procurement, which is mostly solar. He stated that his company has already constructed a 160-megawatt solar farm in Mitchell County, which won a contract with Georgia Power. One of the major concerns voiced by the residents at the hearing was how a solar farm would impact the wildlife and the environment. Levine stated that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, approves of how Invenergy sites projects by using disturbed agricultural land and providing perennial ground coverage that helps with soils. “That’s the same siting mentality that we took when we looked at Sumter County,” Levine said. “Now with the recent announcement by the Georgia Public Service Commission wanting Georgia Power to procure over 2,000 megawatts of renewal power, this site really makes sense for the change and energy production of not only our country and in Georgia, but this has a chance to provide economic benefits for this county.”
Levine stressed that not all 9,661.18 acres will have the solar farm built upon them. “There are streams. There’s obviously Lake Blackshear and areas of wetlands that we intend not to impact,” Levine said. “Our final fenced-in area will be much less than this and even within our fenced area, these panels will only cover about a third of the land.” Levine said that all land within the fenced area would receive natural vegetation that will help with sediment erosion.
During his presentation, Levine outlined via PowerPoint the main points of the project.
- The solar farm will generate up to 1,115 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power 250,000 homes.
- There will be eight parcels that will be under solar lease option agreements.
- The land on which the solar farm is to be constructed will total an area of 9,661.18 acres northeast of Leslie.
- All parcels are zoned agricultural, which allows for solar as a conditional use.
Levine said he hopes if the solar farm is allowed to be built, it will be completed and ready to deliver power by the year 2023.
Levine also stated that the solar farm would be a $500 million investment generating $35 million in property taxes. It would create 500 construction jobs as well as 15 operational jobs. In his opinion, there would also be a reduction in sediment runoff. According to Levine, being that the solar panels last up to 35 years, it would be a 35-year-long benefit to the community. Levine explained that Americus Solar LLC has a vegetation management plan to increase soil health and sediment stabilization and a plan to control erosion.
One of the major concerns that the residents who live on the land where the proposed solar farm is to be built is what it will do to their property values. According to Levine, there is no evidence that solar projects negatively affect property values. He also stated via a PowerPoint that solar facilities at all scales do not cause any of the things that would negatively impact property values, such as a foul odor, noise, traffic, and other nuisances. He also stated that solar farms generate a significant financial benefit to the local economy and to the local taxing bodies that fund school systems and local infrastructure. “This is a tremendous opportunity. I think everybody on our team wakes up every day not only thinking how we can add carbon-free energy to the grid, but what it could do to local communities,” Levine said. “It can cause a real boom and we’ve seen it in wind. We’ve seen it in solar and I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for Sumter County. The way we’ve sited this, it’s going to be in environmentally better shape than when we got it.”
In spite of Levine’s efforts to show the supposed benefits of having a solar farm, the overwhelming majority of the residents at the hearing expressed strong opposition to one being built. Margie McRee spoke on behalf of parcel 1520-311-1, which is near 2565 Spring Creek Church Road in Cobb. She is opposed to the solar farm being constructed because, in her opinion, it would be an eye sore and would be very detrimental to the wildlife. “There’s abundant wildlife and that wildlife is fed by what’s grown on those farms,” she said. McRee said her main reason for being against it is because it would have a negative impact on Sumter County and the surrounding areas. “It’s going to have a tremendous negative impact because this agricultural production that is produced year-in and year-out repeats itself every year and circulates through the economy,” McRee said.
Sylvia Clark also spoke in opposition to the solar farm. She said that she was concerned about how her property’s value would be impacted 10 years from now.
She also voiced her concern about various metals that would go into the soil as a result of the solar farm. “I’m allergic to almost every kind of metal: zinc, copper, all that stuff,” Clark said. She asked Levine where the local office for Americus Solar LLC is located. Levine told her that there isn’t one at this time but that there will eventually be a local office. “We need continued development of this project to justify the office,” Levine said. Clark said that she and her husband are both against it because, in her opinion, there hasn’t been enough research done. She also expressed concerns about how it might cause electrical problems and negatively impact cell service.
Several other residents spoke on behalf of each parcel of land to be impacted by the solar farm’s construction. With the exception of three people, everyone else who spoke voiced his or her opposition to it. They sited negative property values, an adverse impact on wildlife, and how the appearance of solar panels would adversely affect the natural beauty of the area. However, there was one resident who spoke in favor of the solar farm. Yvonnie Williams said that she has monitored the water quality of Lake Blackshear for the past 30 years and that the water quality has gone down because of the sediment runoff. Williams said that she would support the construction of the solar farm primarily because, in her opinion, it would improve the water quality of Lake Blackshear.
Former Sumter County Board of Commissioners Chairman Randy Howard told the P&ZB that he had mixed feelings on the issue. “It’s like a two-edged sword. I’m not against solar. I see some benefits to it,” Howard said. Howard said that other counties such as Mitchell, Taylor, Decatur, and Macon are looking at building a larger solar farm than what is being proposed in Sumter County. “There are a lot of counties around here that are reaching into this thing for revenue,” Howard said. “Counties all around us are going into solar and we need to take a good look at this.”
Once the time for expressing opinions on the issue was over, Broadhurst asked for a motion to approve or deny the request for a conditional use for the construction of a solar farm at 2565 Spring Creek Church Road in Cobb, which is parcel 1519-302-1. Commissioner Gary Houston made a motion to deny the request and Commissioner Rufus Short seconded the motion. The vote was 3-2 with Commissioners Kenny Phillips, David Baldwin, and William Reid voted against the denial. As a result, Baldwin made a motion to table the issue for 30 days so that the commission can have more time to study it. Short seconded the motion. The P&ZC voted unanimously to table the issue for 30 days until its next meeting.