The Oconee County planning staff, after reviewing the revised plans for the solar farm on Dials Mill Road at McNutt Creek Road, has reaffirmed its recommendation that the Board of Commissioners approve the project.
In a report dated Dec. 27, 2016, the staff advocated that the Commission grant Mr. Chick Farms Limited Partnership a special use when the Commission meets at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
The Staff Report addresses concerns raised by citizens in public hearings on Nov. 14 and Dec. 6, calling them “understandable” but dismissing them in the end as unfounded or inconsequential.
The report says that the request for special use approval for the solar farm is consistent with the changes in the zoning laws made by the Board of Commissioners on March 1 of 2016 to allow solar farms on agricultural land.
The report says it is “difficult to fully examine the compatibility of this use” with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, but, “if properly screened and maintained, the proposed solar energy farm may not negatively impact established residential development” nor prevent such development in the future.
The language in the report regarding the Comprehensive Plan is the most responsive to the concerns expressed by residents at the Planning Commission hearing on Nov. 14 and the Board of Commissioners meeting on Dec. 6.
The Planning Commission voted 5 to 0 against recommending approval of the request for special use approval for the project, and the Board of Commissioners postponed a decision at the Dec. 6 meeting until Tuesday night, when the Board will have a new Chair and two new members.
Chair John Daniell will replace Melvin Davis, who was a strong behind-the-scene proponent of the project.
Mark Thomas will replace Jim Luke, who retired Dec. 31 but who recused himself from the discussion on Dec. 6 because his wife owns property in the area.
Chuck Horton will assume the Post 2 slot, made vacant when Daniell stepped down to run for the Chair position.
Mark Saxon and William “Bubber” Wilkes voted at that Dec. 6 meeting to delay a decision on the rezone request until Tuesday night.
According to Planning Department records, the proposed solar energy farm is in close proximity to 9 residential subdivisions with some form of construction underway and one dormant or inactive residential subdivision.
I created the chart below based on documents I obtained from the Planning Department.
|Residential Subdivisions Under Construction Near Proposed Solar Farm|
(CLICK TO ENLARGE.)
A total of 922 dwelling units or lots are included in the nine active projects, including 193 at Georgia Club South and 173 at Wildflower Meadows.
Wildflower Meadows, approved by the BOC in a rezone decision in 2006, runs along the entire northern edge of the solar farm property, with lots backing up to the proposed acreage for the solar farm.
The first phase of the U-shaped development is well underway.
The county has issued 31 building permits for Wildflower Meadows, including 14 in 2016.
Williams and Associates Land Planners, representing Mr. Chick Farms, has submitted revised plans for the project, dropping a parcel east of and south of McNutt Creek Road from the plans.
That parcel, which I labeled Prather on the map, is up against Belfair subdivision, the source of much of the opposition to the project.
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.
Don Hammond of Gainesville owns what was described as a 199-acre parcel 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.
The revised Staff Report lists that property as 204.8 acres.
Eleanor Prather of Good Hope, in Walton County, owns the 39 acres dropped from the current plans.
The staff report lists five citizen concerns: Toxic Materials, Property Valuation, Adverse Health Effects, Benefits, and Decommissioning.
|Dials Mill Road Entrance|
The report said there are “side effects” associated with the production of solar panels but said it could find no “literature” showing problems of panels breaking in installation and labeled concerns about toxic materials a “non-issue.”
The staff report cited the analysis by Oconee County Chief Appraiser Allen Skinner that the project would generate $129,933 in personal property taxes. It acknowledged that the personal property, i.e., the solar panels, would depreciate every year for 17 years until they reach 20 percent valuation and then remain at that level.
The report said it could not find any “peer-reviewed papers studying adverse health effects on humans or animals” of solar farms.
The Staff Report cited the tax revenue as a benefit as well as the benefit of switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
The staff recommended that a condition be added to the rezone specifying that the Board of Commissioners will have to approve a decommissioning plan for the project prior to operation of the plant.
The Board of Commissioners is about to begin a two-year process of updating its 2030 Comprehensive Plan, and the staff report notes that the existing Plan, adopted in 2008, did not anticipate solar energy farms.
|Future Development Map With|
Proposed Solar Farm Highlighted In Black
(CLICK TO ENLARGE.)
The existing Comprehensive Plan, with its Future Development Map, designates the land including and surrounding the proposed solar farm as Suburban Living and Country Estates.
Country Estates is to provide a transition between the more rural areas of the county and traditional suburban residential development, according to the Staff Report.
The Staff Report contends the solar energy farm “does provide a low-intensive land use consistent with the Country Estates development strategies.”
The Suburban Living character area includes established suburban neighborhoods in conventional subdivisions and master planned developments, according to the staff report.
The staff report states:
“It is difficult to fully examine the compatibility of this use with the Comprehensive Plan as solar energy farms were not an anticipated use when the Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2008.
“However, if properly screened and maintained, the proposed solar energy farm may not negatively impact any established residential development nor prevent residential development of adjoining properties in compliance with the development strategies of the Suburban Living character area.”
Most of Wildflower Meadows, and most of the proposed acreage for the solar farm, is in the Suburban Living category of traditional residential neighborhoods.
|Homes Under Construction|
Proposed Solar Farm Behind Camera
More than any other existing residential project, Wildflower Meadows will be affected by the solar farm, with many of the residences literally looking down on it.
Abe Abouhamdan, whose firm Abe Consulting is the engineering and design firm representing Wildflower Meadows developer Ellington Farms Development Partners, has raised concerns about the solar farm both at the Planning Commission and before the Board of Commissioners.
Abouhamdan also is chair of the county’s Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning and bids on and has received design contracts from the county for road design and other work.
Mark Jennings is the registered agent for Ellington Farms Development Partners, according to the Georgia Secretary of State database. The address is 2300 Pete Dickens Road, Bogart.
Larry Christopher was listed as the registered agent when the company was formed in 2009.