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Discussion on solar farm and IGA with Americus approved at BOC meeting

AMERICUS – The Sumter County Board of Commissioners (BOC) held its monthly meeting on Tuesday, November 17. At that meeting, which was held virtually using the Zoom conference call system, the BOC continued to discuss the possibility of allowing the construction of a solar farm to take place near the intersection of Bumphead Road and Lacross Road here in Sumter County.

This issue was originally brought up and discussed at length at the BOC’s work session on Tuesday, November 10, when it began to consider a request made by RE Sumter LLC to rezone a little over 2,800 acres of land in this area from a Rural Residential District (RR) to Heavy Industrial status for the conditional use of a solar facility.

Sumter County Fire and Rescue Chief Jerry Harmon told the BOC that this request was approved by the county’s planning and zoning board and County Attorney Kimberly Reid further explained to the BOC that the zoning board approved a condition that states that if the permit to build the solar facility is not obtained from the county within five years, then the area to be rezoned for the solar farm would go back to its original zoning. “Five years is longer than y’all have permitted for doing that,” Reid told the BOC. “In other instances, there’s nothing per se that says you can’t do five years. Y’all have, I think in the past, done something in the range of one year. I believe that the solar company indicated they preferred five years because of potential delays and for how long they anticipate it would take before they actually got their solar farm permit from the county,” continued Reid.

Reid went on to explain to the BOC that they are dealing with two issues:

  1. A rezoning request, which is governed under Ordinance 23.05, which lays out the factors that determine whether or not it is appropriate to rezone something.
  2. Granting or denying the conditional use for the solar farm in this particular district

Reid went on to say that Fletcher Investment Property, a group that owns property in the area where the proposed solar farm is to be built, has specifically requested that the BOC not only rezone the land to Heavy Industrial status, but also add conditions that will limit the use of the land to solar farm activity and allowing any current legal conforming and non-conforming usage. In other words, the land should be rezoned to Heavy Industrial status on the condition that the land only be used to operate a solar farm or any uses that are presently allowed, whether grandfathered in or currently allowed under the ordinances.

Commissioner George Torbert commented that the use of a solar farm on a certain plot of land is an allowable conditional use of that land as long as it meets all of the guidelines just like there are several other allowable conditional uses within the ordinance. “I wouldn’t think you could do a conditional use permit for this for one thing and then say you can’t do it for anything else in case that pops up,” said Torbert. Reid explained that Fletcher Investment Property doesn’t have any objection to using land for the conditional use of a solar farm, but is asking for the land to be rezoned with the condition or limitation that the only type of industry that can be there would be a solar farm, but that they would also be allowed to continue in uses that are currently allowed.

Greg Heck, who represents Fletcher Investment Property, told the BOC that he had spoken with all of the land owners that live inside the area where the solar farm is to be built, as well as some land owners who live on land that surrounds the projected area. “Every single one we talked to was in agreement that they didn’t want the unlimited H.I. (Heavy Industrial) uses in those 2,000 or more acres,” said Heck. “They were good with just limiting it to solar and the pre-existing uses.”

Speaking on behalf of himself and his fellow landowners, Charles Clark told the BOC at its November 10 work session that they want the solar farm to be built. Clark also participated in the BOC’s meeting this past Tuesday and said that he and his fellow landowners who are involved in the solar project would prefer that if the solar farm does not get built, that the land on which it would have been built be reverted back to its present zoning and added that they don’t want any other type of heavy industrial activity to go on in their area. “Quite frankly, I’ve owned this property out here for 16 years and I have never been approached by any heavy industrial. It’s rural agricultural,” said Clark. “It’s all presently zoned Rural Residential or agricultural. I really don’t think that’s ever going to happen, but it is perfect for solar. That’s what all the landowners want and we would like to limit it to that if that is possible.”

Board Chairman Clay Jones stated that some of the commissioners still need more time before they could make their decisions on the issue. Therefore, no final approval was voted on. However, Jones also stated that a final decision by the BOC regarding the solar farm and its construction might be made at the BOC’s work session in December. “We want to make the best decision for everyone connected,” said Jones. “Just give us a little more time to take a look at it.”

In other news from the meeting, the BOC approved a request from Frank Pierce to rezone five acres from Agricultural Status (AG) to General Business Status (C2) for the opening of a veterinary clinic at 1440 US Highway 280 West in Americus. Chief Harmon told the BOC that he found no issues that would prohibit Pierce’s request from being met. Commissioner Scott Roberson made a motion for approval and Commissioner Torbert seconded the motion. The BOC voted and the approval passed unanimously.

The BOC also considered a request from Ruby Wilson to place a mobile home on property that is zoned as Single Family Residential (R-1). The property is located at 304 Albany Annex Road in Americus. This property currently has a home on it that will remain there. Chief Harmon told the BOC that the Sumter County Planning and Zoning Board has already denied the request because the property is considered an R-1 Residential District property. Any property that is deemed R-1 Residential District can only have one house per parcel and no mobile homes are allowed on R-1 properties. “If that’s the case, I guess we’ll have to follow suit,” said Jones. Jones asked the BOC for a motion to deny Wilson’s request. Commissioner Mark Waddell made a motion to deny the request and Commissioner Torbert seconded the motion. The BOC voted and the motion to deny passed unanimously.

The BOC also voted unanimously to approve an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with the City of Americus relating to the provision of water and sewer services to the new Sumter County High School, which will be located in an unincorporated area of Sumter County. Attorney Reid told the BOC that since the high school is located in an unincorporated area of the county, the City of Americus must have the county’s permission to run the utilities there. Reid went on to say that the city plans to run water, sewage and gas, but that the rules governing what the county has to give the city permission for are different for gas. “Y’all do not have to give them permission for gas,” Reid told the BOC. “That is why this agreement is limited to authorizing water and sewer, but it does note that the city does plan to run gas as well.” Reid went on to say that if the BOC chooses to approve the IGA with Americus, the next step would be for the city to enter into an IGA with the Sumter County Board of Education (BOE), specifying the amount to be paid for utilities and addressing whether or not the BOE would pay any amount for the infrastructure for running the utilities there. Reid added that there is a condition in the provision that clarifies that the county has no responsibility whatsoever for providing any utilities or for any damages due to any utilities. Reid concluded by saying that she did not know of any specific deadline that this proposed IGA with the City of Americus needed to be met by. Commissioner Waddell made a motion to approve the IGA and Commissioner Torbert seconded the motion. A vote was taken and the approval passed unanimously.

The BOC also had a lengthy discussion on the county’s coroner position. Clifford Walton recently defeated incumbent Sumter County Coroner Greg Hancock to become the county’s new coroner as of January 1, 2021. One of the topics related to the coroner’s position that was discussed amongst the commissioners was the cost of body coolers.

Attorney Reid mentioned that Hancock, who is the current coroner until January 1, 2021, has access to a body cooler, but now that Hancock will no longer be serving in that position come January 1, the county will have to come up with funds to purchase another cooler or find some other way to gain access to a cooler.

Commissioner Waddell expressed his concern about the county investing money in getting coolers. “What happens if we invest all this money in coolers and then in four years, this coroner decides not to do it anymore and it goes back to somebody who does own a funeral home. What are we going to do with all these coolers now,” said Waddell. County Operations Administrator Rayetta Volley told the BOC that she looked up the cost of three body coolers. One was $4,895.00. Another was $8,374.00 and the third one was $4,899.00. Volley stated that the reason she wanted to look up the pricing was because newly-elected Sumter County Sheriff Eric Bryant expressed his concern to her about what would be done with a body on January 1 if a cooler is not available. No decision or approval was voted on regarding the coroner’s position, but the BOC was made aware of the help and resources that Walton will need from the county once he begins his job on January 1, 2021.