Save Pulaski County Farms – a Facebook group of some 360 people – has formed to fight against efforts by Hecate Energy to obtain a Special Use Permit to build a 2,700-acre solar farm in the county.
The solar farm project would rest on several parcels of agricultural land, most of which are generally located outside and around the Town of Dublin.
The project will cost developers in excess of $400 million to construct and generate some 130 jobs during construction. Developers estimate the project will generate some $392,000 annually in additional tax revenue for the county.
However, in order for the project to become a reality, the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors would have to grant a Special Use Permit (SUP) to allow for the solar farm to be constructed on land zoned as agricultural.
The Pulaski County Planning Commission will take up the project first and has scheduled a public hearing on the issue Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Little Theatre in Pulaski County High School.
It is the job of the planners to make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors whether or not to approve the SUP.
The Supervisors will hold their own public hearing on Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. – again at PCHS in the Little Theatre. The supervisors can take action on the issue that night.
The Save Pulaski County Farms group is urging local citizens to sign a petition against the solar farm proposal and to attend the two public hearings and let their feelings be known.
The group’s members – led by Pulaski County farmer Joe Meek – believe the land targeted by Hecate is agricultural and should stay that way.
Meek said this week the loss of the land as farmland will make it “pretty tough for that future generation of farmers in the county to get a start.”
“It’s going to hurt the quality of life and the rural character of the county,” Meek said, adding the project “will benefit a few folks at the expense of many.”
Plans for the project call for Hecate to lease the land for the solar project from present landowners.
Meek said the land is zoned agricultural and the project doesn’t do anything to raise livestock or crops or “nurture anything.”
“It just captures sun light,” he said.
“If you bought a place in the country and it was zoned agriculture, you might expect your neighbor to build a barn or put up a chicken house. But you wouldn’t expect this to pop up in front of you or a nuclear power plant or something that would cause the value of your own land to decrease,” Meek reasoned.
“I think that’s being overlooked by the county. The energy company says it won’t affect the land values for property around it, but I don’t see how it could keep from it. If some of us right next to it decide to sell our property and we take 10 – 15 percent less for it, it hurts us,” Meek said.
“Looks like to me the county is picking winners and losers on this thing.”
Meek said he understands the “landowners are doing this willingly, but the energy company is offering them large sums of money for the lease or an option to lease.”
“One thing I don’t understand is how you have an option to lease your land when you don’t know how much is going to be put in [solar] panels and what you’re going to be left with,” he added.
“I understand they (Hecate) can’t use anything on the north slopes and prefers southern slopes. They can’t use anything around a wetland or a creek. Some areas that are wooded, it’s cost prohibitive to remove the trees to put solar panels up. It’s kind of an open-ended thing, once you sign up with them the company gets to do what they want and you’re left to deal with what you’ve got left,” Meek said.
Meek is especially concerned over the fact Board of Supervisors Chairman Joe Guthrie has a personal interest in a piece of property involved in the project.
He believes Guthrie should recuse himself from discussion and voting on the SUP request.
“I really do,” Meek said, adding his family has a farm located right across from a farm Guthrie’s family owns.
“He contacted me personally on participating in the project, and I told him ‘absolutely not,’” Meek said.
According to an opinion by Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney Justin Griffith, Guthrie submitted a formal written request on Dec. 10, 2020 requesting an opinion letter on a potential conflict of interest.
In that opinion, Griffith wrote that “Mr. Guthrie openly and voluntarily disclosed that he has a personal interest in a piece of property that centers around the Special Use Permit vote and discussions related to the Hecate Energy project in Pulaski County.”
In his opinion, Griffith notes that while Guthrie “openly disclosed that he has a personal interest” in the solar project, “that does not end the analysis.”
“A member of the Board of Supervisors who has a personal interest in votes and discussions is not automatically barred from participating in them,” Griffith writes.
Griffith wrote that, “because the property Mr. Guthrie owns is in a group of more than three other similar situated property owners, as long as he fulfills the declarations requirements of [the State Code] his personal interest does not bar his ability to vote.”
Those requirements, according to Griffith, require Guthrie to make an oral declaration of his interest and his ability to be fair and objective on the issue.
In addition, Griffith recommends Guthrie also sign a written declaration including this information, to be available for inspection upon request.
“Both are not legally required, however, because of the magnitude of the Hecate Energy project, he should take the extra step in the disclosure process,” Griffith’s opinion states.
Griffith also noted that it could be argued that a second portion of the State Code governing conflict of interest issues would also allow for his vote – being that Guthrie is a member of a group of more than three other landowners involved in the project.
In closing, however, Griffith states it is his legal opinion that Guthrie may participate, if he chooses, on any votes and discussions regarding the solar farm project providing he complies with the written and oral declarations.
“As far as Guthrie is concerned, it might be legal, but I don’t think it’s moral or ethical,” Meek said.
Another issue Meek has with the project is it won’t create any new jobs for the county. “Only temporary jobs while they’re putting it in, and its going to cost agricultural jobs and put a hardship on some of these area companies that support agriculture.”
“Do you won’t cheap energy or food, even though I don’t think we’re going to get the energy off this. What I understand about it is they’re going to try to sell that (energy) to a green company for tax credits or something,” Meek added.
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot