Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Oconee County Commissioners Turn Down Solar Energy Farm In Northwest Of County

3-1 Vote

Oconee County commissioners in a 3-1 vote tonight (Tuesday) turned down a request for a 30 megawatt solar energy farm at the intersection of McNutt Creek Road and Dials Mill Road in the northwestern part of the county.

Commissioner Chuck Horton made the notion to deny the request for a special use of the 205 acres zoned agricultural for the solar farm, proposed by Rural Green Power LLC of Athens.

Commissioner Mark Saxon seconded the motion and was joined by Horton and Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes in the vote on the motion.

New Commissioner Mark Thomas provided the sole vote against the denial.

About 80

About 80 people turned out for the rezone hearing, the first conducted by new BOC Chair John Daniell.

Thomas, Horton, Wilkes and Saxon

Daniell set a tight 20-minute restriction on those arguing for and those arguing against the rezone, in contrast with predecessor Melvin Davis, who allowed opponents to overflow the 20-minute initial limitation but then also gave proponents extra time to argue their case.

Jon Williams of Williams and Associates, representing property owner Chick Farms Partnership LLC of Gainesville as well as Neville Anderson of Rural Green Power, used of most the 20-minute allotment for proponents.

Williams was joined by Dr. Neal Priest, an emergency room doctor at St. Mary’s Hospital, who lives at 1181 Tanglebrook Drive.

Priest was a strong proponent of solar energy, calling it safe and saying “this is one of the cleanest possible ways you could utilize and draw benefit from rural, agricultural land.”

Anderson lives at 1132 Tanglebrook Drive.

During his presentation, Williams told the Commission that the property on Dials Mill Road had been selected for the project because of its proximity to transmission lines already in the area.

Four Against

Four people spoke against the rezone.

Harold Gene Aycock, 1340 Dials Plantation Dr., called the request “spot zoning” inconsistent with the county’s comprehensive land use plan.

Dominic LaBarbera. 1930 Dials Mill Road, also said the land use was inappropriate. “Anyway you slice this, it is industry,” he said. “It is simply in the wrong place in Oconee County.”

Chris Herron, 1121 Garnett Trail, said he was concerned about property values.

“I appreciate that we call it a solar farm,” he said. “But it is a power plant. And I appreciate that it may be the best kind of power plant. But it is still a power plant.”

Randy Jackson, 1050 Sunstone Drive in Belfair subdivision, focused his comments, shorted by Daniell, on the adverse impact of the project on Wildflower Meadows, a subdivision under construction that abuts much of the property proposed for the solar farm.

Thomas Question

B.R. White, director of Planning and Code Enforcement, acknowledged that he had been asked by former Commission Chair Melvin Davis to draft changes to the county’s Unified Development Code to allow for solar farms in the county in response to the project proposed by Anderson.

“My instructions from the chairman at the time was to present amendments to the code to address solar powers,” White said. “And it was for this. But the code was not written specifically for this site.”

White was responding to a question from Commissioner Thomas, who asked: “Do you feel like that you were, in any kind of form or fashion, having this particular project in mind, or was this a generic UDC change.”


The meeting took place in Courtroom 1 rather than the Commission Chamber to accommodate the anticipated large crowd.

The Board of Commissioners had put off a decision on the rezone request at its meeting on Dec. 6 because of changes made to the plan at the last minute and to allow for Commissioners Horton and Thomas to join the Board at the start of the new year.

The video below is of the whole meeting, which was dominated by the zoning hearing and discussion.

Consideration of the rezone request starts at 4 minutes and 24 seconds into the video.

OCO: BOC 1 3 2017 Complete from Lee Becker on Vimeo.


Rosemary Woodel said...

Appreciate the apparently more fair method of running meetings.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see Daniell start out firm in his first meting and not let preferred speakers go on and on (remember when Melvin let Doug Dickens go on at a meting?).

Also nice to see Horton, Saxon and Bubber stand together out of the gate.

Alternative energy such as solar is a good thing; how it was handled in this instance was troubling and heavy handed on Melvin's part. Always let the public know early and go from there.

Red flag: Is former Industrial Development Authority member Mark Thomas going to be pro-development all the time? Worth keeping an eye on.

Jonathan Wallace said...

I'm disappointed this lost. Thanks for sharing, Lee.

Unknown said...

The time factor allotment is irrelevant now, but needs to be discussed. The homeowners had a two fold agenda coming into the meeting. Having been blindsided at the last minute with a revised (and biased)staff report, we had to put together a second presentation (which was halted) on this. Not being familiar with county protocol, we assumed that since this was voted down by the Planning Commissioners, the planning department would not get a "mulligan" with a second report. The "last minute" changes by the developer at the December 6th meeting, had no relevance to the finding of the first report. Previous ground rules allowed one party to over the 20 minute allotment, and those same minutes were allowed back to the other party. We knew going in that time would expire, but were prepared to allow the developer additional time for a rebuttal. Hopefully going forward, we will find that this was an exception, rather than the "norm".

Anonymous said...

There has to be other places in the county that Mr. Anderson could possibly find to put a solar farm. The Idea is definitely worth pursuing.
Doesn't the Industrial Authority have land for sale?
Isn't there a large tract on 441 South next to the river still for sale?
Or the University property on Snows mill Rd?
Or land around the shopping center on 316?

Anonymous said...

Great post by Anon 12:10.

Solar is absolutely worth pursuing. It in unfair categorize county residents as being NIMBY's. Find a smart location and make sure communication to all involved is very clear, upfront & early, transparent and well-publicized, especially the pertinent timelines.

In this instance it seemed to be forced and hurried before Melvin left office. He wrote regular columns in the Oconee Enterprise; could have mentioned solar and UDC changes to the public in 2015 or the first three quarters of 2016.

After all of the dust ups from the past few years, the Doug Dickens & GDOT issue, UGA and Government Station, the $4 million dollar road for Frank Bishop, 441 Bishop Bypass, improperly treated wastewater directly into Calls Creek, etc., etc., hoping county elected officials and staff are very open, pro-active and communicative with residents/taxpayer. Time to restore trust and good will.

Oconee County commissioners have known since at least the first of the year that the county has very serious problems with the operation of its two sewage treatment plants, but they waited until last week to give a hint to the general public of the problems the county is facing.
At the regular meeting of the Board last week, Chairman Melvin Davis said the county “had been made aware of an issue” at the Calls Creek plant a month earlier, but the Georgia Environment Protection Division told the county on Dec. 16, 2014, of a “serious violation” of its permit at the Calls Creek plant and permit violations at its Rocky Branch plant as well.
The silence on the issue was maintained at the meeting of the commissioners last night, when not a word was said about the ongoing crisis surrounding the county’s Utility Department, which operates the county’s two sewage plants.
That was true even though the county announced on Monday another sewage spill, following announcement on Friday of two spills that day.
Davis, County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko, Board of Education Member Mark Thomas and Blake Giles, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, had met earlier in the day to discuss the sewer system problems. No members of the public were invited to that session.
Mark Thomas was the one who presented Davis with videos and pictures of pollution of Calls Creek downstream from the county’s treatment plant, forcing Davis’ public acknowledgment of the “issue” on May 26.

Zippity said...

I sure hope Mr. Daniel sticks to the 20 minute limit. Otherwise, these meetings go on forever. People can state their case in 20 minutes. Most of what is said is repetitive even with the 20 minute limit.

Anonymous said...

Commission meetings and work sessions really, really need to be recorded and posted online.
The commission should only meet in executive session when following the state's strict guidelines.

Minutes for Planning Commission and Industrial Development Authority meetings need to be posted online quickly.
That's where some very important Oconee business happens.

We need an informed and involved public.
John Daniell can really change the culture with these few simple steps.

Melissa Steele said...

1) I think you meant Priest, not Anderson lives at Tanglebrook drive, and is a personal friend of ours who's home is an inspiration in eco friendly. Thanks to Mark Thomas for voting yes. Very very very disappointed. It's not like the area is teeming with rolling vistas and cattle farms. Subdivisions everywhere and a major highway less than a mile away. This sight will likely be yet another un-necessary subdivision within 5 years. As in every other aspect, Georgia will continue to lag behind on catching up with the 21st century. This was a stellar opportunity for Oconee County to create a vision for our future in keeping with all the amazing innovations coming out of UGA and to set a standard for all other communities in Georgia. FOILED. Chuck Horton what say ye?
As for the advocates FOR...had they done a better job of presenting this to the residents in the area and assured them of the effectiveness of properly placed buffers and even the possibility of a joint venture with agricultural growers, we might have had something like this: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Japanese_Farmers_Producing_Crops_and_Solar_Energy.php
and then we'd be on the cutting edge instead of the slippery slope. Not to mention...how many POTENTIAL OCONEE JOBS WERE LOST and TAX REVENUE LOST because of this decision? Boone NC certainly has their priorities straight:

Lee Becker said...

Both Priest and Anderson live on Tanglebrook Drive.

Anonymous said...

Melissa Steele:

1) You are correct, those presenting this could and should have "done a better job presenting this to the residents in the area and assured them of the effectiveness of properly placed buffers and even the possibility of a joint venture with agricultural growers".

2) Solar can and should happen in Oconee. The public needs to be well informed. No more behind closed door dealings. With upfront communication by elected officials, county staff and the presenting parties, worthy projects like this can come to fruition.

3) Solar's great, but does not produce many jobs after the installation.

With better leadership, communication, partnership and direction, I'm very confident the county can move forward into the 21st century.

Anonymous said...

The government told someone what they can and cannot do with their property. Imagine that. Wake up citizens...your inability to truly own your property is exactly how the government exercises power and robs your freedom.

Unknown said...

Melissa, this opposition had nothing to do with the pro's and con's of solar energy. The opposition came about because of how and where this was being proposed. There are currently 30 homes ($350K +)scheduled to be built right down the property line of the proposed solar panel farm (not to mention the ones already there and bought). They would have an 8 foot chain link fence on their property line with 8 foot solar panels next to the fence at a distance the same as a tennis court. There are another 50+ homes scheduled to be built across the street. At the other end of the farm, a phase 2 of another subdivision is starting. These were all approved long before this came up. As far as Oconee County employee new jobs, there wouldn't be any, this is an unmanned facility. The 238 acres would generate $12,000 per year in property taxes (total). There would be $129K the first year in personal property taxes, but that would be reduced quickly over a few years. Sites such as the one in Social Circle are more suitable for these types of projects. If you try and put something like this (or any other massive industry)in the direct proximity of 1,000 homes, you will always get pushback from the owners.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
The government told someone what they can and cannot do with their property. Imagine that. Wake up citizens...your inability to truly own your property is exactly how the government exercises power and robs your freedom.
9:07 AM


Yep, Anon 9:07 am, this happened under an All-Republican Oconee County Commission, under a Republican Governor, Republican Attorney General, Republican Agriculture Commissioner, and Republican-controlled State House & State Senate. Remember that the next time someone blames everything on Obama and the federal government.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the Governor, Attorney General, Agriculture Commissioner, State House or Senate had any thing to do with the Solar Farm rejection. Only the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.
Do you really think that a Democrat Board would have voted any different?

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:37PM:
You are sadly mistaken if you think there is any difference between the Democrats & Republicans. Both parties want the Government to control every aspect of our lives. Try learning a little more than the typical sound bites regurgitated on Huff Po & Vox before commenting please.

Xardox said...

Solar energy: Clean. Green. Earth Friendly!
Criticism of this project is like hating Grandma, America, and warm puppies.
The location simply is not the best.
Initial steps loom huge down the road:
A cemetery rapidly being surrounded by in-and-out business.
The first of many garish lighted signs on poles in the Mars Hill project.
Huge auto dealership crammed into a professional park area.
Clearly over-dense building on the Old Macon Highway curve.
The County Planning Director, was not replaced, a mistake easily corrected.
Give some attention to planning by a permanent, professional, educated spokesperson who works for the citizens, not for the building industry, not for the "tax base," not for the "fund balance."

Anonymous said...


I agree. I am writing John Daniels and coming to the next meeting to demand the Planning Director and staff be replaced immediately. We need a new approach and not the same "good ol' boy" pro-development Old Oconee group that has been running things down there for years. I urge you all to do the same.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:44 pm, you have every right to be skeptical of the Planning and Economic Development Departments. The Planning Dept. keeps allowing fast food eateries, self storage, the ridiculous large college student apartment complex on the already treacherous curve on Macon Highway, etc. And even when the Planning Commission votes something down, the Planning staff still tries to push it through to the commission.

The massive auto dealership advocated by a report presented by the Economic Development Director but written by the auto dealership manager was simply a breach of public trust. Economic Development overall in the county has been unimpressive, with a failure to capitalize on the neighboring University of Georgia, and the terms of the Caterpillar agreement/giveaway have cost taxpayers immensely with little return on investment.

But Planning & Economic Development should be given a chance to see how they operate without Melvin Davis. Remember, it was Melvin who put the developer in touch with the owner of that specific piece of property, and advocated for it behind the scenes. Melvin as county commissioner chair knew about this proposal for two years without notifying the public until this past fall. Melvin pushed for the Doug Dickens entrance on Mars Hill, negotiated secretly with UGA on Government Station, had the Frank Bishop $4 million dollar Kohl's road fly through a commission vote with almost no public notice, etc., etc. Now department heads can operate without Melvin's interference.

If you're angry, and you should be, but Melvin Davis is the first one in line. Hopefully John Daniell will be upfront and make sure the public is kept in the loop earlier on proposed projects, developments, tax break giveaways, etc. The commissioners, county manager and department heads need to communicate much more effectively, and especially earlier, with constituents.

The Calls Creek issue will be a bellwether. The local group is organized and sharp, and has rebutted all of Lance Haynie's arguments for the sewer line in backyards. There are clear and better alternatives. Daniell's response will be insightful.

I may be naive, but I'm expecting a sea change. The behind closed door dealings and keeping the public in dark cannot get any worse than it was under Melvin. Hoping and praying that Daniel and the commissioners operate in a more responsible, communicative & upfront manner!

In January of 2015, Davis had put the developer, Neville Anderson, in touch with the land owner, Don Hammond, for the specific purpose of developing the solar farm.
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.