It didn’t take long for the attorney representing Origis Energy to lay her trump card on the table at the Alachua Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) special meeting Tuesday night.
That attorney relayed in person the message delivered via letter on July 1, 2021. The letter, addressed to Alachua County Attorney Sylvia Torres, was from law firm Akerman, LLP, representing Origis Energy to secure a 638-acre parcel as a solar array property in Archer, and it provided a legal opinion about SB 896—also known as the “Renewable Energy” bill.
“We believe SB 896 (governing the solar facility approval process), which was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis on June 30, 2021, effective July 1, 2021, preempts the County’s land use regulation governing solar facility use on land with agricultural land use and zoning designation and mandates solar facilities to be a permitted use on agricultural land,” the letter states. “Therefore, we believe the Origis Application, requesting solar facilities to be a permitted use on agricultural land, has now been rendered moot.”
This sentiment was echoed in person at Tuesday’s BOCC meeting, which lasted for more than seven hours and caused the BOCC to approve extending the meeting past midnight.
But for dozens of residents living adjacent to the parcel along CR 346 in an agriculture district that has served as a timber harvest sight for more than a decade and farmland before that, SB 896 wasn’t going to shut them down.
One by one they came to the mic during public comment expressing concerns of inconsistencies in public outreach and the impact the facility would have on their community. They detailed the character of the property in its current use and said it is part of the fabric of the Archer community.
Attorney Nathan Skop represented a group of 40 residents. He called witnesses and pointed to the racial injustices of planting another industrial endeavor in an African American neighborhood that does not have the resources to combat a deep-pocketed corporation.
In 2020, the BOCC denied an application from Archer Solar Project LLC, which applied for a special permit to set up 230,000 solar panels on 650 acres on the northeast corner of SW 170th Street and SW 95th Avenue. That tract of land is adjacent to Saint Peters Cemetery and Saint Peter’s Baptist Church in Archer.
The October meeting mirrored Tuesday night’s proceeding as dozens of citizens spoke out against the project, claiming racial injustice and that the solar array would benefit GRU and customers in Gainesville but not in Archer.
Previous solar facility special exceptions presented to the BOCC include:
- SYBAC facility on NE 53rd Avenue—6 megawatts
- FPL Array in eastern Alachua County—74.9 megawatts
- Prairie View Solar Park off of SW 63rd Avenue—1.5 megawatts
- Application ZOX-01-20 for a 74.9 megawatt facility that was denied in October 2020
SB 896 went into effect last week. According to the bill summary, it “requires solar facilities to be a permitted use in all agricultural land use categories in a local government’s comprehensive plan and all agricultural zoning districts within an unincorporated area.”
But the BOCC declined to stop the meeting after the Origis attorney referenced SB 896. On the contrary, after hours of discussion, public comment, presentations, rebuttals and the recommendation of the county staff to approve the application, the BOCC voted 3-2 to decline the application, with Commissioner Charles Chestnut making the motion and Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler seconding it.
Commissioner Anna Prizzia voted for the denial, while Commissioner Chair Ken Cornell and Commissioner Mary Alford voted against the denial.
Some argued in the meeting that concessions Origis agreed to—such as larger setbacks and buffers beyond the minimum requirement of current county code—should warrant the approval of the application, because should the state overturn the decision, those concessions will most likely not be extended in a potential future solar array.
That is a risk the BOCC decided to take when it again sent the message that it will side with citizens who do not want a solar array adjacent to Archer’s African American agriculture community and cemeteries.
The decision ran counter to the county staff recommendation to approve the application. At Tuesday’s meeting staff reminded the board that the solar array would raise $1 million in ad valorem taxes over 10 years, the developer would fix the broken roads around the property, buffers would be six times wider than county requirements, and a solar facility creates no “traffic, noise, odors, lighting.”
During commissioner discussion Chair Cornell noted that he voted to approve the FPL solar array in Gainesville but denied the October 2020 application because he said the county needed to lead in the effort of truth and reconciliation.
“The ground has shifted since the last time we did this,” Cornell said, referring to SB 896.
“After tonight we’re going to be preempted,” he continued, referring to the possibility that Tallahassee will ultimately be making decisions about future solar arrays such as one slotted for High Springs.
“Voting no (against a solar facility) could be worse than voting yes,” he said. He added that if the state does preempt and overrule the BOCC’s application rejection and then DeSantis overturns it, buffers will only be 25 feet instead of 300 feet. “If we deny this application, we as a community lose.”
But both Commissioners Prizzia and Wheeler sided with Commissioner Chestnut and said they felt the community was denied a chance to take part in the process and not given enough information to feel safe about the solar facility being a good neighbor.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the 2020 and 2021 applications were from different companies.