Supervisors give green light to solar project

Supervisors give green light to solar project

The way has now been cleared for the third largest solar renewable energy generation project on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. to be built here in Pulaski County.

The Board of Supervisors, meeting Monday night in Pulaski County High School’s Little Theatre, voted to approve a Special Use Permit (SUP) requested by Hecate Energy LLC to construct the project on nearly 2,700 acres of farmland on multiple parcels located generally near the Town of Dublin.

The SUP was approved on a 3-1-1 vote by the supervisors with supervisors John Travis, Laura Walters and Dirk Compton voting to approve the SUP. Robinson District Supervisor Charles Bopp voted against approval, and – in the end – Cloyd District Supervisor and board chairman Joe Guthrie abstained from voting.

The vote followed along with the recommendation of the Pulaski County Planning Commission which two weeks ago voted 4-2 with one abstention to recommend approval of the SUP to the supervisors after holding their own public hearing.

The supervisors’ decision-making vote Monday came following a nearly two-hour public hearing which saw seven citizens speak in favor of approving the SUP, while another citizen was undecided and 17 spoke in opposition.

For many of those speaking Monday, it marked at least the second time they had made their cases for or against the project.

Those speaking against approval spoke of the “irreparable harm” it would do to farming in the county as nearly all the land proposed for the project is located on farmland. They said the land is zoned for agriculture and should remain so.

Some questioned whether the project is consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan. Others said the project presents a “quality of life” issue as it would harm the rural views from their properties.

Some speakers asked for greater amounts of “buffer” between their properties and portions of the project.

And at least a couple speakers asked the supervisors to delay a final vote on the project until they could consider citizens’ concerns further.

Those in favor of approval for the project noted it is the right of property owners to lease portions of their land to the developer for the project if they so choose.

They mentioned the economic benefits to the county and the future need for greater reliance on renewable energy that will follow along with the goals of the Clean Community Act which was approved last year by the legislature.

In the end the majority of supervisors agreed that approving the SUP request is in the best interest of the county.

Hecate Energy estimates Pulaski County will realize $392,000 in annual tax revenue from the project. Additional real estate tax revenues will push the first-year total revenue gain for the county up to approximately $735,000.

Chris Tuck, attorney for Hecate said the county would also realize some 350 full-time equivalent jobs during the construction phase of the project and approximately $18 million in associated labor income. And, Tuck added, the county would realize approximately $47 million in economic output.

After construction, he said, the project would produce 12 full-time equivalent jobs with approximately $850,000 in associated labor income and some $1.7 million in economic output.

“Economic impact and activity will be enhanced by the operation of this facility to a significantly greater extent than if the land remains used primarily for agricultural production,” Tuck said.

Plus, it was noted, the project will provide these benefits to the county with little financial impact on existing county services, such as schools, roads, emergency services, etc.

Tuck said the solar project will attract high-tech industries to the county – especially leading data center companies.

Elaine Holeton, the county’s Director of Planning and Zoning, noted Pulaski County Administration Staff had recommended approval of the SUP.

She said the project does not change the pattern of development, it is in harmony with surrounding uses, it will have little effect on neighboring properties, and it does not pose a health, safety or welfare risk to the community.

She noted that two weeks ago the planning commission also voted 5-1 in ruling the project is in substantial accord with the Comprehensive Plan.

Holeton said the solar project does support the county’s overall vision, as well as supporting multiple policies listed in the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

She noted the plan says Pulaski County has 77,504 acres in agricultural production and the solar project would use 3.4 percent of the total agricultural acres in the county.

At the beginning of the meeting, Guthrie read a statement noting the county’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Justin Griffith had provided an opinion – at Guthrie’s request – that state conflict of interest laws allow him to participate in discussion and a vote on the solar project.

Guthrie, whose family owns two parcels included in the project area, is only one of several landowners who will lease their land to Hecate for the project. Because there are more than three landowners involved, state law allows Guthrie to participate in discussions by the board and in a vote, as long as he declares verbally and in writing his involvement.

During the supervisors’ vote Monday night, Guthrie – the last of the five supervisors to cast their vote – declared he would abstain from voting. At the time of his abstention, the vote on the SUP stood at 3-1 in favor.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot