County Commissioners Approve Solar Field in Three to One Vote

Published 10:17 pm Sunday, December 17, 2023

On the 12th of December, the County Commissioners convened in the court room. No television camera covered the event, but tensions were high as the controversial solar project finally reached a vote.
Chairman Mark Waddell opened the floor for commissioner’s comments. Commissioner Jim Reid was first to address the Board.
“When SA solar appeared before us last month, I was under the impression that the appearance was to appeal the ruling by the planning and zoning board. Yet the lawyer for SA solar never addressed an instance where he thought the planning and zoning board had erred. If the planning and zoning board did not make an error, what grounds do we have to overturn their decision?”
Reid addressed property rights.
“One of the freedoms that separates America from other countries is the right to own property. When Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind told her father Gerald O’Hara that she didn’t care about Tara he replied ‘You mean to tell me Katie Scarlett O’Hara that land does not mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for because it is the only thing that lasts. The fact that land lasts separates it from all other assets on Earth. But with the right to own property comes the responsibility of stewardship.
The current generation has a responsibility to preserve the land and ensure it when it is transferred to the next generation to make sure that it is in better condition than when it was transferred to us. So if land is converted to a solar farm, do you really think it will have greater productive capacity twenty years later?”
Reid also stated that the farm generated 4 million dollars annually and supported 74 local businesses, and that food production was a matter of national security.
Commissioner David Baldwin addressed the Board.
“Solar farms are in fact far from new technology as some may tout. The first utility class solar farm was established 40 years ago, in 1983, with a hundred thousand first generation solar panels producing only 5.2 megawatts of electricity. The site has never been classified as contaminated in any way, as some say will happen.”
He addressed opinions on majority rule.
“Unlike volunteer citizen boards, we as commissioners swore an oath to uphold the laws and support the constitutions of the United States and the state of Georgia. That means that if many of one’s neighbor’s wants to deny a man’s legal rights, we are sworn to uphold those rights regardless of our personal opinions, or how it would affect us personally or financially.”
Baldwin stated they could only deny the application if it were in violation of code.
“The only legally substantive arguments that I have heard include health, safety, and general welfare of the county. Among these noted were erosion, property values, and aesthetics.
Erosion: The applicant retained the services of an ecologist who submitted their plans for the construction and operation of the solar farm to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the EPD, and the Department of Natural Resources for review and approval. All three entities approved their plans.”
Baldwin stated his research showed a negligible drop in property values associated with solar farms.
“This is agricultural land in an agricultural district. Any land owner can establish a poultry farm, a poultry processing plant, livestock feedyard, a dairy, a chicken rendering plant, a swine operation, or any number of other operations that according to my research could lower property values anywhere from 10-80%.”
Baldwin listed several potential conditions that could be added should the Board strike down the Planning and Zoning Board’s decision to bar solar.
Conditions included requiring a five-foot tall at planting vegetative buffer between all residences, paved roads, churches and cemeteries, fifty-foot setbacks of panels along several parcels, requiring appropriate ground cover to be planted over disturbed areas, not use IEA incorporated or any affiliated contractor, and providing a decommissioning bond at 150% of the amount estimated to decommission the solar farm.
A further condition was added by Baldwin after questions by Reid.
“Any supplies that are not exempt from state sales taxes shall be shown by the applicant as delivered to Sumter County address for sales tax purposes, to the extant allowed by law.”
Baldwin made a motion to override the decision by the planning and zoning board and allow the conditional use permit with the attached conditions.
The motion carried with commissioners Jessie Smith and Clay Jones in favor and Reid against.
Smith declined comment as to the reasons for his vote. Jones concurred with the arguments laid out by Baldwin.