When the developers of Wildflower Meadows, a 263.1- acre subdivision in northwest Oconee County, wanted to launch the project in 2006, they assembled 10 different pieces of property to accommodate the proposed 170 lots.
The largest of the 10 assembled tracts was a 113.5-acre parcel owned by the Hammond family of Gainesville.
The decision of the family to sell the two tracts in 2006 came back to haunt it on Jan. 3, when the Oconee County Board of Commissioners voted 3-1 against a rezone request for an adjoining 204.8 acres owned by the Hammond family.
The majority of the Commission argued that the proposed use for the 204.8 acres was incompatible with the Wildflower Meadows and other nearby subdivisions.
The Hammonds wanted to put a 30 megawatt solar energy farm on the 204.8 acres.
The project is not dead, however, according to Neville Anderson, who planned to build the solar farm on the Hammond property.
Anderson said he is only waiting the required six months before he once again asks the Board of Commissioners to approve the rezone for the solar farm.
“I honestly believe they (the Commissioners) made a mistake” when they turned down the rezone request by the Hammond family on Jan. 3, Anderson told me on Jan. 19 when we met for breakfast at the Waffle House on U.S. 441 near Hog Mountain Road.
The rezone was a condition for Anderson buying or leasing the land from the Hammonds for the solar farm.
“There was no logical reason” for the Commission not to approve the project, Anderson said.
“I’m very, very stubborn,” he added.
When the six month waiting period expires in July, Anderson said, he will come back and make the request once again that the Hammonds be given a special use to allow for the construction of the solar farm on the 204.8 acres zoned for agricultural use that abut Wildflower Meadows.
The Commission majority concluded that a solar farm was not compatible with the residential character of the area as reflected in the county’s Comprehensive Plan and Future Development Map.
|Wild Indigo Crossing, Looking To Proposed Solar Farm I|
The concept plan for the solar farm shows solar panels covering virtually the entire 204.8 acres.
Commissioners Chuck Horton, Mark Saxon and William “Bubber” Wilkes voted to turn down the rezone request. Commission Mark Thomas voted against the denial motion.
The prime example of incompatibility of the proposal was the 23 lots in Wildflower Meadows that would back up to the solar farm.
Most of those 23 lots were part of the 113.5-acre tract that the Hammond family sold in 2006 to the developer of the subdivision.
Back in 2006, the developer of Wildflower Meadows was Tripp Reynolds Construction Inc., according to county tax records, and was represented by Abe Abouhamdan, president of ABE Consulting and the chair of the county’s Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee.
Wildflowers Meadows today is owned by Ellington Farms Development Partners LLC, 2300 Pete Dickens Road, Bogart. Mark Jennings is the registered agent, and the firm is represented by ABE Consulting.
In the rezone narrative submitted back in 2006 for Wildflower Meadows, ABE Consulting wrote that the larger lots along the southern boundaries of the subdivision will “create better transition and protection for transitional agricultural land in this vicinity.”
If the solar farm project had gone through as proposed, those larger lots would have been transitioning not to land being used for agriculture–though it would have remained zoned for that use--but to the proposed buffer around the energy complex.
Buffer At Issue
Jon Williams of Williams and Associates, the firm representing the Hammond family’s Mr. Chick Farms Limited Partnership in the rezone as well as solar farm developer Anderson, argued that the solar farm would be properly buffered from Wildflower Meadows and from other residential subdivisions in the area.
|Wild Indigo Crossing, Looking To Proposed Solar Farm II|
In the initial proposal Williams submitted to the county on Sept. 26 of last year, he said the solar farm would be screened from adjoining properties and adjacent roads “using the natural topography or by the installation of an evergreen buffer capable of reaching a height of 6 feet within three years of planting.”
The screen would have “at least 75 percent opacity at the time of planting,” roughly meaning that it would be impossible to see through the screen at about three-quarters of the places.
Williams also proposed a “minimum setback of 50 feet from all property lines and 100 feet from any residence for the solar farm plates and other related equipment.
Revisions To Buffer
The Planning Commission voted 5-0 against recommending the special use for the solar farm on Nov. 14. (The initial vote recorded was 6-0, but the official vote is 5-0.)
The Board of Commissioners delayed a decision on the special use request on Dec. 6 when Williams proposed some changes to the initial plan
On Dec. 16, Williams filed revised plans for the buffer.
Adjacent to Wildflower Meadows, where no trees or vegetation now exist, Williams proposed a 20-foot landscaped buffer “with large shrubs minimum 6' tall at planting and capable of reaching a minimum 8' height at maturity, spaced a minimum 16' on center.”
He also agreed to add an 8-foot opaque fence.
Where trees and vegetation currently exist, Williams proposed to leave 50 feet of existing vegetation in place and to add the 20-foot landscaped buffer and a 6-foot tall security fence.
Increased Other Buffers
Williams also proposed to increase the buffer adjacent to Dials Mill Road to include a 20-foot landscaped buffer with a 4-foot berm and the large shrubs proposed for the property adjacent to Wildflower Meadows.
He also proposed to increase the buffers on the southern and western borders of the project and specified that no solar structure or solar accessory would be located less than 100 feet from the property line and no inverters would be located less than 300 feel from the property line.
Inverters feed into the electric power distribution system.
Williams also dropped 39 acres owned by Eleanor Prather of Good Hope, in Walton County, from the plans for the solar farm.
That 39-acre parcel abutted Belfair subdivision, which is across Dials Mill Road from the remaining 204.8 acres still proposed for the solar farm.
Abouhamdan, representing Wildflower Meadows, told the Planning Commission and the Board of Commissioners at its meeting on Dec. 6 that he did not believe the buffers were adequate to protect the homes in the subdivision.
Abouhamdan did not appear at the BOC meeting on Jan. 3 when the Board of Commissioners turned down the special use request, but citizens who did speak said they did not believe even the revised buffers were sufficient.
Wildflower Meadows is being built in phases, with the initial phase consisting of the lots closest to Dials Mill Road.
The 113.5-acre parcel owned by the Hammond family of Gainesville that is now a part of Wildflower Meadows is not yet open for development or accessible to the public.
In the initial phase, homes are in various stages of construction, many are finished and unoccupied, and many lots remain unused.
I visited the subdivision again yesterday (Saturday) and took pictures and video that show how unlikely it is, given the change in elevation, that the proposed buffer will fully screen the acreage being proposed for the solar farm from at least some of the homes in Wildflower Meadows.
The pictures also show how close, even in the initial phase, lots are to the proposed solar farm.
Many of the lots in the 113.5 acre-parcel purchased from the Hammond family will be close to the solar farm as well.
Video from my visit to the area is at the bottom of this post.
Anderson, in our breakfast conversation, said he understood the desire of residents to maintain the rural nature of the tract he wants to develop as a solar farm, and he said he is willing to leave some of the existing agricultural buildings in place to accomplish that.
|Map of Northwest Section Of County (Click To Enlarge)|
He also noted that there already are commercial operations nearby, including Evergreen Nursery, a wholesale nursery business just south of the proposed solar farm, and the Garrett’s Roll Off Systems trash hauling operation further north on the road and across from Wildflower Meadows.
Both are on land zoned for agriculture.
“It wasn’t like I went out into a neighborhood,” he said. In addition, with the buffers “No one is going to see anything here,” he added.
Anderson said he chose the property because he wanted to be near his home in Tanglebrook subdivision off Epps Bridge Parkway at the Clarke County line and he wanted to be close to a population center.
As the map shows, the site chosen by Anderson is one of the largest undeveloped tracts in the northwest section of the county, excepting the open areas around the Caterpillar plant where supplies were expected to locate.
Essential to the selection of the Hammond acreage for the solar farm are existing transmission lines at the rear of the property, Anderson said. Those lines are visible from Garrett Road.
|Dials Mill Road, Evergreen Nursery From Belfair|
Anderson said it costs $1 million per mile to build such transmission lines.
Anderson’s company, 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.
Rural Green Power has never built a facility like the one proposed, Anderson said, but he said he has engineering companies he will work with that have experience with the type of solar project proposed.
Sandy Wienel, development project engineer with the Oconee County Planning Department, told County Attorney Daniel Haygood in an email message on Dec. 29 of last year that concerns had been raised about decommissioning of a solar plant in the public meetings.
She said that some jurisdictions require a surety, that is pledge of money to guarantee that the plant will be removed if it no longer operates.
Haygood advised Weinel that, if the county wanted to create a provision for surety, he recommended that the BOC turn down the rezone request and rewrite the county’s ordinance to include this requirement.
Instead, the staff wrote a condition for the rezone that, if approved by the BOC, would have required Anderson to provide a Decommission Plan to be approved by the BOC prior to operation of the plant.
The Oconee Enterprise, in an editorial in the paper’s Jan. 5 edition, said that the vote of the Commission not to approve the solar farm was anti-solar power.
At a town hall meeting on Jan. 10, the four voting commissioners explained their votes in response to a question from a citizen.
Mark Thomas, who voted against the denial, and thus in favor of the proposal, was the first to respond, and he said he was in favor of renewable energy, but he did recognize that there are downsides to solar, such as its inability to generate electricity at some of the peak times of need.
Commissioner Mark Saxon said he, too, favored renewable energy, but he said the location was the problem. “I just felt this pocket was a residential pocket,” he said.
Commissioner Chuck Horton, who also voted against the solar farm, said he was not opposed to solar power but that the project “was a major business” that stretched over 200 acres in the residential area.
Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes also said he wasn’t against solar power, but “You’ve got a residential section that’s going down all one side of that solar power farm.”
He was referring to Wildflower Meadows.
The Enterprise editorial also criticized the citizens who spoke up against the rezone.
“It’s time for Oconee homeowners to look at the bigger picture,” the editorial said. “There’s more to being a good citizen than worrying about property values.”
None of the four citizens who spoke at the Jan. 3 hearing on the rezone spoke against solar energy, though citizens had been critical at earlier meeting.
In fact, the at least three of the citizens who spoke at the Jan. 3 meeting said they supported solar power.
The argument was that the solar farm did not fit with the residential area into which it was being placed because of the farm’s industrial nature.
Origin Of Rezone Request
Former Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis was instrumental in launching the proposal for the solar farm on the Hammond property, an examination of email records showed.
Anderson told me in our breakfast meeting that he met Davis at a conference. Anderson said representatives of Georgia Power introduced him to Davis.
Anderson said he subsequently contacted Davis and said he would be interested in doing a solar farm project in Oconee County.
In January of 2015, according to the email record, Davis put Anderson in touch Don Hammond, representing the Hammond family.
Davis then initiated an effort to get the county to change its zoning laws to allow for construction of the solar farm on the agriculturally zoned land.
Unified Development Code
At the time that Davis put Anderson in touch with Hammond, the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) did not allow for solar farms.
The code listed allowed use in a table, and stated that “Any principal use not shown on the following Table 2.1 as allowed in a zoning district, whether by right or with approval as a Special Use, is specifically prohibited.”
Davis asked B.R. White, director of the county’s Planning Department, to draft a change in the UDC to allow for Anderson’s proposal.
White told Davis that the Board would have to determine in what zoning categories other than industrial it want to allow solar farms.
In the end, White drafted changes in the UDC to allow for a solar farm in an industrial zoning area by right, that is, without special permission, and in agricultural zoned land by special use, that is, if approved by the Board.
The Board of Commissioners approved those changes on March 1, 2016.
The inclusion of agricultural land as a potential site for solar farms opened up a huge potential category for that use, as land in the county not zoned for any other use was zoned agriculture by default when the county first adopted zoning more than 30 years ago.
|Garrett Road, Looking North Toward Proposed Solar Farm|
The many subdivisions dotted around the county were zoned agricultural before they were rezoned for residential use, and they generally are surrounded by agricultural land.
The map above shows the subdivisions in the area around the proposed solar farm, and almost all of the remaining land is zoned agricultural.
The common refrain of citizens from subdivisions around the county when rezones for commercial or other uses are proposed is to lament the loss of the rural landscape those farms provided.
The county has a policy of buffering residential developments from commercial or industrial use by putting less intense use such as office and business parks between the residential and commercial or industrial uses.
The UDC now treats the solar farm as an allowed agricultural use rather than an industrial one and does not require the buffer by less intrusive land use that would be require if the land actually were rezoned for industrial use.
Odd Shape Of Wildflower Meadows
Wildflower Meadows, in fact, shows the nature of the problem when a residential project is placed in the middle of an agricultural area.
The Hammonds sold about a third of their initial acreage for the residential development but kept the remaining two thirds.
What could be done with that remaining two thirds subsequently was impacted by residential development on the initial one third.
The odd shape of Wildflower Meadows is even more telling.
The county allowed the developer to nearly surround but not include acreage at the center of the development.
That makes is extremely unlikely the county would allow much other than residential development in that unused land in the future.
The Oconee County School system has purchased land for a new elementary school not far from Wildflower Meadows and the proposed solar farm.
The new school will be located on Hog Mountain Road between Osborne Road and Dewey Road.
The selection of a site for a new school in this corner of the county is to serve residential growth. At the same time, it likely will spur residential growth.
County officials are talking about the need to extend water and sewer services to the site, and those services are then a stimulant for more growth.
In my conversation with Anderson, he expressed confidence that he and the Hammond family will ask again for a special use for the acreage for the solar farm.
“It just makes sense,” he said. “I’ll not try to harm the community. I am a part of the community. I would never propose a harmful project in my home. I would never propose a harmful project.”
On Dec. 16, Frank Pitman from Williams and Associates filed a constitutional challenge, anticipating the possibility that the county might turn down the rezone request.
“Denial of the above referenced zoning request amounts to an unconstitutional deprivation of the property and arbitrary confiscation of the property without just compensation under the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Georgia,” Pitman asserted.
Such a filing allows for a legal challenge to the decision should the Hammond family wish to pursue it.
I created a video made up of three clips I made yesterday while visiting Wildflower Meadows.
I had been to the site several times before, but I returned to reevaluate some of the information I had received in doing this post.
The video shows in more detail what is shown in the pictures above.