Residents in the northwest of the county may have been surprised late last year when signs went up announcing public hearings on a proposed change in land use to allow for development of a solar energy farm on 238 acres at the intersection of McNutt Creek Road and Dials Mill Road.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis had known about and promoted the project for at least a year and three quarters.
Davis then initiated the effort to get the county to change its zoning laws to allow for construction of the solar farm on the agriculturally zoned land.
The Board of Commissioners approved those changes on March 1.
Davis also has worked more recently behind the scenes to provide fellow commissioners with information supportive of the special use approval for the solar farm that property owner Hammond is seeking from the county.
Commissioners William “Bubber” Wilkes and Mark Saxon, the only commissioners other than Davis eligible to vote after the public hearing on Dec. 6, refused to go along with Davis’ effort, putting off until the Commission meeting on Jan. 3 a decision on the request.
Davis’ role in promotion of the solar farm is in evidence in an email chain I obtained through open records requests I filed on Dec. 13.
I asked for “any and all correspondence received by or sent by Melvin Davis regarding solar farms or their equivalent from July 1, 2015, until the present.”
I asked for “All correspondence to and from any planning staff member regarding changes in the UDC dealing with solar farms in 2015 and 2016.”
UDC stands for Unified Development Code.
I received responses from Davis and from B.R. White, director of the Oconee County Department of Planning and Code Enforcement, on Dec. 16.
Most of the informative documents were in the files provided by White, though they were written by Davis before the time period I specified in my request for access to his correspondence.
Jan. 12, 2015, Email
The email message Davis sent to Anderson, for example, came from an email chain I obtained from White.
In that email, shown below, Davis told Anderson on Jan. 12, 2015,that he was attaching contact information for Hammond, who Davis said, has some interest “in locating a solar farm on his property on Dials Mill Road.”
|Davis Email To Anderson, Jan. 12, 2015|
(CLICK TO ENLARGE.)
I did not receive the attachment as part of my open records request.
Davis told Anderson that he had left a “voice mail message with Mr. Hammond indicating you will be contacting him.”
Davis also copied Hammond in on the email.
On Jan. 12, 2015, the proposed use of the agricultural land for a solar farm would not have been possible given the UDC in place at that time.
It also is unlikely the land could have been rezoned for industrial use, where a solar farm might have been possible, given that no other industrial properties are in the area.
Follow From Anderson
Anderson responded to Davis on Feb. 5, 2015, copying his response to Hammond.
“Do you think you could grant me a few minutes on your calendar in the near future to discuss solar in Oconee County,” Anderson said in that email to Davis. Anderson indicated he had spoken with both Walton EMC and Southern Company “transmission folks” about the possible project.
Anderson sent his email message at 2:08 p.m., and Davis wrote back at 4:38 p.m.
Will February 19th at 3:00 PM work for your schedule? I will request our Planning Director, BR White, to be present for the discussion, if his schedule permits.
Benko And White
Davis had copied Planning and Code Enforcement Director White in his response, as had Anderson in his request for the meeting.
Davis also copied County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko, to whom White, according to the county’s organizational chart, reports.
Benko sent White an email message at 5:20 p.m. on Feb. 5.
“If you do not want to attend let me know!” Benko wrote to White.
White responded to Benko at 7:56 a.m. on Feb. 6. He did not copy anyone.
“I can do it,” White said of the meeting.
“In the end, the Board will have to direct us to write some code on solar farms and tell us in what zoning categories other than industrial they want the use allowed.”
Anderson And Hammond
Anderson, 1131 Tanglebrook Drive, off Epps Bridge Parkway near the McNutt Creek border with Clarke County, is managing director at Green Energy Partners LLC and president and CEO of Rural Green Power LLC, according to his LinkedIn entry.
Rural Green Power LLC, with an Athens postal address, is to be the developer of the $50 million solar farm project, according to the rezone narrative.
Hammond owns 199 acres west of the intersection of McNutt Creek Road and Dials Mill Road north of U.S. 78, under the name Mr. Chick Farms Limited Partnership of Gainesville.
According to Oconee County Tax records, Hammond also owned just less than 34 acres on the east side of Dials Mill Road and south of McNutt Creek Road until Dec. 19, 2014, when he sold it to Eleanor Prather of Good Hope, in Walton County, in what is listed in the tax records as a “family sale.”
The original plans had called for the placement of solar panels across nearly all of the acreage in the two parcels, converting them from green farmland to solar receptors.
In the revised plans to be considered by the Board of Commissioners at its meeting on Tuesday night, only the 199-acres will be covered with the panels.
Prior to the changes approved by the Board of Commissioners on March 1, 2016, the county’s Unified Development Code made almost no reference to solar energy and did not specify what might be done with a proposal for a solar energy farm.
The Commission changed that on March 1.
The BOC held two hearings on a series of changes to the UDC, on Feb. 23 and again on March 1. The Planning Commission also held a hearing on the changes on Feb. 15.
Tucked into those UDC changes was considerable new language on solar energy, including the crucial provision that solar energy farms could be on land zoned for industrial use or on agricultural land. The agricultural use required a special use approval.
The minutes show no public comment on the issue, and Planning and Code Enforcement Director White sent Anderson an email message on March 2 telling him the changes to the UDC “passed unamiously. No concerns or questions on solar farms. We look forward working with you.”
“Awesome! We have the site and funding ready,” Anderson replied.
Anticipation Of Solar Farms
Wayne Provost, then director of Strategic and Long-Range Planning, had written to White on several occasions going back at least to June of 2014 advising him that the county needed to think about how to handle solar farms.
Work progressed following the meeting with Anderson in February of 2015, and White kept Anderson informed of the progress.
White wrote to Provost in March of 2015, saying “We are working on some solar power code for the UDC. Residential is included in the revisions. Walton County has a very basic framework ordinance that covers solar farms and residential instillation.”
Anderson wrote to White on Dec. 23 of 2015, saying: “Please give me an update on the solar regulationss, have you finalized, when will it be presented for discussion?”
White wrote back: “As it stands right now, the Planning Commission will hear the proposed ordinance change in February, followed by a first reading by the Board of Commissioners at the end of February and a second reading and, hopefully, adoption by Board of Commissioners in early March.”
On Feb. 3, White sent Anderson a link to the proposed ordinance change under consideration.
Commissioners In Loop
Planning and Code Enforcement Director White also had kept the members of the Board of Commissioners informed about the proposed changes in the UDC.
On Sept. 22, 2015, he sent Davis, Commissioners Jim Luke, John Daniell, Wilkes and Saxon what he called a “very rough draft of the Solar Power regulation proposal.”
White said “I still have a few questions to work out. Those questions are noted in RED. Feedback is greatly appreciated.”
White made specific reference to solar farms, saying he was still trying to figure out how much of a link there should be in the document to residential use of solar panels.
“Please let me know if you have questions,” he wrote.
The Oconee County Planning Commission on Nov. 14 voted 6 to 0 not to recommend to the Board of Commissioners the special use for the solar farm, following comments from citizens raising a number of concerns about negative impact of the project on nearby residential neighborhoods.
|Solar Farm Ahead?|
On Nov. 28, Davis asked Allen Skinner, chief appraiser with the Oconee County Property Appraisal Department, to do an analysis of the tax impact of the solar energy farm.
Skinner wrote back the next day saying the two parcels being considered produced only $2,272 in taxes in 2015 but would produce “approximately” $12,824 if they were used for a solar farm, plus an estimated $129,933 in personal property tax.
Davis thanked Skinner for "providing this information. Very informative." He forwarded Skinner’s email to the commissioners the next day.
Georgia Public Services Director Tim Echols also weighed in, with a letter to Davis and the other commissioners on Nov. 28.
Echols, who lives in Oconee County, said “I would much prefer a quiet solar farm which makes no noise, emits no CO2, and requires virtually no maintenance, than another chicken house or waste disposal company or other project which might make its presence known through noise or smell.”
Echols said: “I hope you all will let this project go through.”
Commissioner Luke, whose wife’s family owns property in the area of the proposed solar farm, recused himself at the BOC meeting on Dec. 6, leaving only Saxon and Wilkes as voting members. At that time, Post 2 was vacant.
Davis, who could vote in the case of a tie, needed only one vote from Saxon or Wilkes to get the project through, but he couldn’t get it.
Wilkes is a vocal supporter of Davis, but he said he wanted to wait until January to make a decision because he had not had a chance to look at the changes to the plans submitted that evening.
Those changes dropped the smaller tract and specified some buffer agreements.
Saxon said the plans had been changed “a little bit” but that was not the issue for him.
“I don’t think I’m educated enough to make a decision tonight,” he said. “I’m prepared to vote, but I’ll follow Commissioner Wilkes’ plan to table it. I definitely think there is more to learn before I make a decision this big.” (See video below.)
The two voted to delay the decision until Tuesday night, when Saxon and Wilkes will be joined by new commissioners Chuck Horton and Mark Thomas.
Daniell, rather than Davis, who retires today, will be BOC Chair.