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Sumter County BOC conducts Public Hearing on rezoning of land for solar farm

AMERICUS – The Sumter County Board of Commissioners (BOC) held its monthly meeting virtually on Tuesday, November 10. At this meeting, the BOC held a Public Hearing to consider a request from RE Sumter LLC to rezone close to 2,900 acres of land along Bumphead Road and Lacross Road from Rural Residential (RR) to Heavy Industrial (I-2) for the conditional use and construction of a solar farm.

The meeting was held virtually via Zoom due to concerns over COVID-19, but every commissioner was in attendance.

During the Public Hearing, the BOC heard from Jayce Walker, a representative from Recurrent Energy. According to the company’s website: www.recurrentenergy.com,  Recurrent Energy is a leading utility-scale solar and energy storage project developer and they would be responsible for building and operating the solar farm if the project is allowed to proceed.

Walker told the BOC that in the past few months, the company has issued community notices in advance of some community zoom meetings that were held a few weeks ago. At these zoom meetings, the landowners in the communities in which the solar farm would be built got a chance to express their concerns. Walker also told the BOC that his company set up a project website that had a recording of one of these zoom meetings, along with literature about the project. Walker went on to say that the solar farm would be surrounded by a vegetative evergreen buffer so that people won’t be disturbed by the sight of the solar panels as they drive by. He added that all wetlands and cultural items would be avoided in the construction of the solar farm and that the land on which the solar farm would be built is already suited for this purpose

Walker also told the BOC that the construction and building of the solar farm would create up to 350 peak construction jobs that will increase over time during the one-year construction period, but will taper off as construction of the solar farm nears its completion. Walker went on to say that once the solar farm is opened, there would be two to four permanent jobs on-site for the operations and maintenance of the facility. Walker also stated that local labor will be used as much as possible in the maintenance of the solar farm and that there will be secondary economic impacts to local hotels and restaurants.

Board Chairman Clay Jones told Walker that he was glancing through the booklet describing what the farm would look like at completion and asked him why the fencing has barbed wire on the top of it. Walker responded that the company has to adhere to the standards of National Electric Code (NEC) and that the solar farm is an electricity-generating facility and, therefore, would have to have the same safety considerations as a coal or natural gas plant. “You wouldn’t want somebody hopping a fence and jumping into a facility like that,” said Walker. “We have to use those same codes and ensure that we keep trespassers out.”

Kayla Laughlin, another representative from Recurrent Energy who was in the Zoom meeting, stated that Sumter County had an ordinance in place requiring barbed wire as part of the fencing and that the company was trying to follow that county ordinance.

Charles Clark, a landowner who lives in the area in which the proposed solar farm would be built, spoke on behalf of several landowners who live in the area.

“We as a group of landowners are in favor of this project and hope that the commissioners will also be in favor of it,” said Clark. “The first reason is just a pure economic reason. We’re all business people and we stand to get more return on our investment through leasing our land for this development than we’re currently getting. For that reason alone, we are obviously in favor.”

Clark went on to say that he and his fellow farmers are all in either pine tree production, row crop production or pecan production and that the solar farm would be a better economic use of their acreage than they are currently getting. “I think most anyone would be in favor if they were in our position,” Clark said. “Secondly, we are in favor because the benefits extend past ourselves and on to support Sumter County. Like most farmers, our land is in conservative use and the $10 million in property taxes that this project is going to generate over its lifetime to our county will far exceed what we would be paying in farmland over the next four years.”

Clark continued by saying that a lot of the tax dollars goes to education in the county and that the really big winners are the children in the education system of Sumter County. He also added that the Sumter County Board of Education would love to have unexpected funds for the construction of the new high school.

Clark went on to say that another reason why he and his fellow landowners are in favor of the solar farm being built is because they have come to really like the people in charge of the project and how they’ve handled getting it to the point of presenting it to the BOC. “Regardless if you had 50 acres or you had 500 acres, we were all treated exactly the same in our option agreement and in our leases,” said Clark. “I know that that attitude will carry over if they become a member of our community.”

Clark added that not only did Recurrent Energy treat him and his fellow landowners with the utmost respect, but they also treated adjacent landowners with the same type of respect and professionalism as well. Clark also stated that the landowners are in favor of the additional language that has been added to the conditional use permit that allows for solar-only, heavy industrial use and also the reversion to previous zoning after 60 months. “If the solar facility is not built within the 60-month period, the landowners are in favor of it reverting back to it’s current zone,” said Clark. “We’re going to all go back to being farmers of row crops, pecans and pine trees, so we are in favor of that.”

Clark added that Recurrent Energy is trying to put a $200 million-dollar project in Sumter County that does not make a sound or cause an awful smell and doesn’t generate any toxic bi-products. “It just sits there and quietly generates power and money for our county,” said Clark. “And yet, this large company is responsive to individual landowners and wants to do things right. I don’t know about you, but that speaks a lot to me as to what type of company we’re dealing with.”

Clark closed his address to the BOC by stating that back in 2014, his farm was first identified as a sight that met the criteria for solar generation and that he has been following this issue closely ever since. “Georgia Power announced in the spring of 2019 that they were going to construct two gig watts of solar power generation in South Georgia by the end of 2024,” said Clark. Clark added that these 20 sites would all be built in areas south of Perry because there is more sunlight in the southern part of the state. “That four hours of more sunlight every day makes a huge difference to them,” said Clark. “This is new found money for South Georgia counties, a new revenue stream that has no side effects whatsoever compared to other industrial development.” Clark went on to say that one member of economic development in another county that he spoke to told him that he referred to that revenue as “Manna from Heaven” for their county.

“We need to be able to get our part of this revenue in Sumter County because I can assure you that other county commissioners in other counties would love to be hearing this presentation at their county commission meeting tonight,” said Clark. “Not all counties have sites that are suitable for solar development and not all sites within a county, for one reason or another, are suitable for solar development. This list of criteria is extensive.” Clark continued by saying that when a county has a suitable site and a company wants to invest in that county, the county should be willing to help that company in every way. “We’ve got a site that has met all the criteria. We have a transmission line that not only has the capacity to handle the power that they will generate, but the interconnection permits are already in place and are sitting in suspension waiting for this project to start,” said Clark. “That interconnection process is a two-year process. It’s already been done and it’s ready to go.”

Clark closed by stating that the next step to making these $200 million-dollar projects a reality is the BOC’s approval. “We strongly urge you to vote in favor of this project,” said Clark.

Once Clark was finished, Jones asked if anyone else wanted to speak in favor of the project. Justin Arnold told the BOC that he wanted to speak on behalf of his client, Fletcher Investment Property. “We spoke with Mr. Clark and the property we’re concerned with is adjacent to some of his property that’s at issue here,” said Arnold.

Arnold went on to say that he had the opportunity to speak with other adjoining landowners and stated that his client is certainly in favor of the solar farm opportunity for this area. However, Arnold stated that he wanted to make sure that certain restrictions would be in place regarding the potential rezoning and the conditional use permit. Greg Heck, who also represents Fletcher Investment Property, was a part of the meeting and told the BOC that the main issue that they had was that there was a reversion provision agreed to by the Sumter County Planning and Zoning Commission that is helpful, but for the five years before that reversion might take place, there would be unrestricted heavy industrial activity.

“That concerns us and concerns the surrounding landowners and frankly, the landowners in the project,” said Heck. Heck went on to tell the BOC that the landowners don’t want all of the uses of heavy industrial activity taking place, such as a chicken processing plant or a hog slaughter plant. Instead, the landowners want the uses to stay with existing uses under Rural Residential status, plus the addition of solar.

“The restriction of the Condition of Use Permit alone doesn’t help anything because that’s an additional use in addition to what is allowed under Heavy Industrial,” said Heck. “All the uses under Heavy Industrial would be allowed if you don’t restrict it on condition.” Heck reiterated that his biggest concern was that for the surrounding landowners and the regular landowners in the project, the rezoning itself is limited to the solar project and pre-existing or existing units uses now within the Rural Residential status, in addition to the reversion. “We’re grateful for your protection against those potential extreme uses,” Heck told the BOC.

Jones asked if there was anyone in the Zoom meeting that wanted to speak against the request to rezone land for the conditional use of a solar farm. No one spoke out against it. At that point, Jones stated that the BOC would take into consideration what it had heard regarding the request and would make its decision at next Tuesday’s virtual meeting on November 17. At that point, Jones declared the Public Hearing closed.