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County commission denies request for solar array zoning exception on environmental racism grounds

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

A Special County Commission meeting on October 6 was a continuation of a September 29 meeting that was postponed after a power outage in Archer. The purpose of the meeting was to consider a request by Archer Solar Project LLC (working with Duke Energy) for a special exception to permit a solar array and distribution lines on approximately 650 acres that had an existing Rural/Agriculture land use designation. The project was proposed on the northeast corner of SW 170th Street and SW 95th Avenue. The Planning Commission recommended denial of the exception by a vote of 3-2, but County staff recommended approving it.

The applicants’ presentations were in the previous meeting, and they said that the solar array would not be visible from the road within a few years, there would be no additional noise, there would be no groundwater contamination, and other surveys of properties near solar arrays showed no decrease in property values after the solar array was built. They said that no endangered species had been found on the property. The applicants also said the property is currently a tree farm and that it would be clear-cut in the near future if they didn’t purchase it; it could also be sold for development.

In the October 6 meeting, Terrell Arline, an attorney for the affected parties, said they were in favor of solar energy but that the exception should be denied because it “violates the provisions of comprehensive plan that support social equity, environmental justice, and compatibility with the surrounding community.” He also said sinkholes have been observed in the area and “just imagine, you know, an array of solar panels… struggling to work when a sinkhole opens up and they get all out of whack.” He also said the project didn’t promote sustainable agriculture. 

Presenters described the history of the area, saying that African-Americans have resided in the community since prior to Reconstruction. The St. Peter Cemetery, which dates back to the 1800s, adjoins the property under discussion. One presenter said the project would “[destroy] a historic farming community.” 

The affected parties were also concerned about the amount of water that would be used (and run off) if the solar panels were cleaned several times a year; they fear that detergents could contaminate their drinking water. 

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Dr. Michelle Rutledge said, “We feel we are only here today because we live in a black community. This is environmental injustice. Power plants, including industrial solar power plants, are not typically located in residential neighborhoods, except, it seems, for in vulnerable communities like communities of color.” She continued, “If this application is approved, when I walk out of the front door of my home, I will see a ‘Danger High Voltage’ sign next door. That doesn’t sound like safe or fair treatment of all people to me. Does it to you?” She presented a UT Austin study that showed solar power plants can negatively affect property values. 

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler was concerned about a County policy that “requires institutional uses approved by special use permits demonstrate preservation and strengthening of community character through design.” The staff response was that it may not “strengthen the community, but it will not detract from the community through the use of things like buffers and vegetative buffers and screening… as opposed to clear-cutting the property, is, you know, where there would be nothing left, an empty 640-acre lot. Could this strengthen the community by providing a permanent visual and tree buffer on the property, the answer is, yeah, it could.”

Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson pointed out, with the help of staff, that under the current agricultural zoning of the property, the County has no authority to limit the use of herbicides or limit the use of water.

Commissioner Mike Byerly said he favors building “as much solar power as we can in the next 30 or 40 years… If an argument had been made that this site is bad and it’s unfair and there was good evidence for that, then I might be thinking twice. That argument has not been made here tonight or any of our previous meetings.”

He said he saw “cognitive dissonance” in the opponents’ statements that they favor solar power but at the same time think it’s “toxic and dangerous and a risk to the people that live around them.” He continued, “We’ve got a development that will have virtually no traffic, no noise, no spillover light. It won’t be visible from the neighbors. There’s no significant historical or culture resources, no significant environmental resources, no demonstrable impacts to water or air. This is one of the most passive, benign uses of land you can imagine. And the alternatives on the same site include row crop agriculture or a subdivision. And all of the impacts would be far worse if that were to happen.” Byerly moved to support staff’s recommendation to approve the special exception, but the motion died for lack of a second.

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut moved that they deny the petition, and Wheeler seconded the motion. He explained, “Let’s face it. There is racial issues and racial tensions in this community. It’s everywhere, man. I mean, even from the president down, you can’t tell me that that doesn’t have an effect. And then so you have a community that calls environmental racism and then we turn a deaf ear to it and say oh, this is not environmental racism. This doesn’t occur in this day and time. Yes, it does…

“But you know, if I’m going to continue to lead this truth and reconciliation process, it has to be fair. I was hoping and praying that if anything came up with this type of issue that we would have had an equity officer in place to actually review and look at this and bring a report back to the commission to say is this racial bias or is this environmental racism or anything. But we don’t have one. So we can’t say that. So I’m going off of my best shot: I’ve heard the evidence, heard some of the people speak. They’re very emotional. Their families have owned this land over 100 years…

“So I’m just torn here. But I’m not torn to the extent that I would say that this is not some form of racism or not. It feels like that to me because I think if that wouldn’t have been brought up, it would never have been said. But I think it is racism to some degree, that we would say that this is not racism but it’s about the future of solar by saying solar is more important in terms of how an African-American community feels about their property value and the value that they’re going to leave to their children and to their grandchildren, that it doesn’t mean much.”

Wheeler said she felt like she needed to “listen to what these people are asking for their own community there… I think at times it feels like we’re saying if we don’t do solar here in this spot, it means we are not acknowledging our climate situation. And I just don’t think that’s the case. I think at this point we need to accept the fact that our human psyches are fragile because of what we’ve gone through this year together. And I think at some point we just have to acquiesce a little bit and decide that there are needs other than economic at this point.”

Commissioner Ken Cornell said he didn’t think a power plant belonged in a residential community. 

After public comment, Cornell added, “I keep hearing that we need to provide a basis so I’m going to give seven. Number one, I think it’s inconsistent with policy 5.5.2 and 5.5.1h. Number two, I don’t believe the applicant met the engagement standard in the comp plan. I don’t believe it’s consistent with the comp plan with regards to the protection of agricultural areas and the preservation of neighborhoods. Number four, with regards to the impact on land values, I believe the evidence presented only showed really one adjacent to something similar. And I think we need a lot more evidence than that.

“Number five, I think from a local historical significance perspective that there are significant local historical sites, while they may not be of significance nationally, although I think they could be, I believe they certainly are locally. Number six… I think the construction and maintenance of the plant will provide a lot more impact than a single family home. Number seven, as staff indicated in their review of the transmission line, I think there are many, many, many other potential opportunities. I’m all for solar. I’m all for climate change. I think it’s the right project in the wrong place.”

The motion to deny the application passed 3-2, with Hutchinson and Byerly in dissent.

Hutchinson added, “I will just say that I haven’t weighed in on my opinion on it. But I so believe that the neighbors will ultimately lose because the uses of that land will be more obnoxious than the solar. So the solar will find another place to go, or the way we handled this will wind up in court and the circuit court will overturn it anyway. I think that’s the upshot of it.”

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