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County commission denies special exception for Archer solar array

Loretha Cleveland speaks at the July 6 Alachua County Commission meeting

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

In a Special Meeting held on July 6, the Alachua County Commission denied a special zoning exception for a solar array in Archer. The site was selected by Origis, which has a Power Purchase Agreement with Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) to provide 50 MW of solar energy. The zoning exception was originally approved by the Alachua County Planning Commission on February 17. The neighbors of the site, who are mainly black, have been arguing that Origis should select a different site instead of putting the solar array in an area that has a long residential history. In addition, the residents argued that since they purchase their electricity from Clay Electric, the array has potential harms without any benefits to them. The residents collected 1,873 signatures on a petition before it closed. The City of Archer and the Alachua County Branch of the NAACP have both publicly opposed the project.

After it was discovered that the County made an error in noticing the matter to the residents, the Planning Commission meeting was re-noticed, and the item was reconsidered on April 21, with the Planning Commission voting 4-3 for approval, sending it to the July 6 Special Meeting of the Alachua County Commission for final approval.

In a meeting that lasted over 7 hours, the commission heard from County staff; the applicant and their expert witnesses; neighbors of the site, who were represented by attorney Nathan Skop; and the public.

Staff report 

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The staff report found that the applicant’s request met the standards in the County’s comprehensive plan. The staff report also said they did not see an environmental justice impact because the site was selected due to its location near a point where the power could be supplied to the electric grid, and they “could not make a determination” of adverse impact on the property owners. Staff also found that the plan was consistent with the Unified Land Development Code, and staff recommended approval.

In response to a question from Commissioner Anna Prizzia, staff explained that land with rural agriculture zoning, like this property, can be developed in a number of non-commercial ways, including one residence per 5 acres, or about 135 residences in this case. Some agricultural rural businesses would also be allowed “by right,” meaning that no approval would be needed.

Applicant

Representatives from Origis said they were there “under protest” because they believe Senate Bill 896 preempts any local denial of applications for solar facilities on agricultural land. The representatives also said that the project is “for the citizens of this community who demanded 100% renewable energy.” Jason Thomas of Origis said they’ve heard the complaints from the neighbors that they won’t get benefit from the solar array, so they’ve reached out to Clay Electric to begin discussions “to see if we can bring a smaller, independent, second project to take advantage of the economies of scale of the larger project.”

They said “solar panels have no negative impact, there’s no noise, there’s no emission, there’s no risk… Environmental justice considerations are critical. Communities of color have historically been disproportionately impacted by industrial operations placed in their communities. Solar arrays are not industrial… A passive solar farm is a far less intense use… than the other uses that are allowed by right in agricultural zones… Alachua County needs to take action to fulfill the promise of 100% renewable energy by 2045… Regardless of the zoning preemption passed by the State, Alachua should lead the way for renewable energy and not become a talking point for anti-renewable energy forces that would revel in the validation of this misinformation and rhetoric against solar.”

Gerry Dedenbach, representing Origis, pointed out that the Unified Land Development Code requires a 25-foot buffer, but Origis had voluntarily increased it to 150 feet. Origis also presented an expert witness testifying that he has found no negative impact on property values for homes near solar arrays. Another witness testified that the level of noise on the site would be similar to a quiet office environment, babbling brook, or birds chirping. In closing, Origis reminded the commission that staff has recommended approval three times, and the Planning Commission has approved the application twice. 

Neighbors

Nathan Skop, representing the interested parties–30 owners of 42 parcels–said that the application should be denied because it “directly impacts the tight-knit African-American community and property owners who descended from slaves and sharecroppers.” He said the site is adjacent to a historic African-American cemetery and that the site is in a fragile ecosystem. Skop said the Gainesville City Commission and GRU “hypocritically talk about equitable development and tool kits, but how is this equitable to African-American homeowners in a historic African-American community? It’s not.” Skop also said the “aspirational policies of the Gainesville City Commission don’t reflect the interests of the African-American property owners in Archer who receive absolutely no benefit from this project.”

Skop also pointed out several errors in the staff report, noted that a previous staff report didn’t discuss the battery that will be part of the facility and that could potentially cause a fire, and stated that the report didn’t discuss the potential “heat island effect” of 3-4 °C higher temperatures that have been measured around solar arrays. 

“This project… follows a dangerous problematic pattern, targeting rural black and brown communities for locally unwanted land uses.” – Archer resident Loretha Cleveland

Loretha Cleveland, who owns property near the proposed site of the solar array, said, “To be clear, we’re not anti-solar, nor any other clean renewable energy source. We maintain that this is a great idea in the wrong location… This project… follows a dangerous problematic pattern, targeting rural black and brown communities for locally unwanted land uses.” She spoke about how her great-great-great-grandparents had established a “stable foundation” on the land for her family to grow. 

Cleveland finished her presentation on behalf of the group of neighbors and made a statement on her own behalf: “We are not asking if you picked our neighborhood because we’re black. We know you picked our neighborhood because we’re black. But you picked the wrong neighborhood. And your presentation tonight shows you are tone-deaf to the African-American community that we are a part of… This is another blatant example of systemic racism… Money matters to [Origis]. Black lives matter to us. Our neighborhood matters to us. And we’re asking our commissioners to vote no on this proposal.”

Clare Polke said the application “feels parasitic and inaccessible.” She said that environmental justice requires “meaningful involvement,” meaning that “people actually have an opportunity to participate in decisions about projects and activities that will disrupt their communities… Black communities continuously carry an unequal environmental burden, even when we’re least likely to reap the benefits, which is what’s happening here.”

“We are not Gainesville’s dumping ground.” – Geraldine Robinson

Another nearby property owner, Geraldine Robinson, said the development took them by surprise because “they may have put it in the Gainesville Sun. If you ride down 346, they don’t take the Gainesville Sun… They don’t have internet out there… You guys did a poor job outreaching to us. Could have come door-to-door. Guess how we found out?… We went door-to-door and stood in their yards and told them what was going on… We reached out to Mr. Nathan for his help because we can’t do this by ourselves… We are not Gainesville’s dumping ground.” She said that several people who claimed to live nearby and endorsed the project do not actually live in their community.

In his rebuttal, Dedenbach said that “Skop actually brought no experts to the room tonight. There was no subject matter evidence placed before you… We’re asked to follow research.” He also pointed out that because of the new preemption law, which took effect July 1, this may be the last solar application the county commission will ever see, their last chance to set conditions and “mold the application” to their liking. 

Commission discussion

During the commissioners’ discussion, Prizzia said she thought a solar array is “probably the most benign use we could have,” but “I haven’t seen evidence that there was good engagement with the community.”

Commissioner Mary Alford said she understood the heritage, but she was also concerned about what the land owner could decide to do with the land if the application were denied: “Everything would be more than a solar farm… This is a hard, hard decision, but right now I’m inclined to support the solar farm.”

“I’m not a denier of renewable energy. I support it… But I don’t think [I] can sit here and support something that I know systematically has happened in this country to African-American communities… I’m not going to support this.” – Commissioner Chuck Chestnut

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said, “I’ve heard from the citizens, they felt… that they weren’t involved in the process… When it comes to me, in terms of dealing with the Truth and Reconciliation process that Alachua County is going through, and leading that charge, and talking about the lynchings that occurred, the Jim Crow laws that were in place to suppress and to deny and to inflict fear… and then to sit here and hear this kind of stuff all over again, where we know that in African-American communities, that all of the bad stuff was put there—landfills, chemical stuff was dumped… I’m not a denier of renewable energy. I support it… But I don’t think [I] can sit here and support something that I know systematically has happened in this country to African-American communities… I’m not going to support this.”

Chair Ken Cornell said, “I know this community wants more solar. And the ground has really shifted since the last time we did this, and that was the legislature changed the rules… We’re out of it… And my biggest fear is that voting no could be worse than voting yes.” He said the applicant was willing to make concessions and that they should ask for the modifications that would make the application acceptable to the neighbors. “After tonight we don’t get to ask any more… If we deny this, we’re missing an opportunity. And if we approve it, we’re missing an opportunity.”

“This is their lives, this is their land, this is their homes, and they haven’t been given enough information or proof that they feel confident and safe that this is going to be a good neighborhood… How can we say this isn’t an environmental injustice?” – Commissioner Anna Prizzia

Prizzia said, “One of the things that’s hard for me about this conversation is that in order for something to be an environmental justice issue, it has to actually be a detriment to the community… It’s not noisy. It’s not dirty. It’s… [after construction] a quiet neighbor… except that the reality is, it’s not me. And the perception is reality in this case. This is their lives, this is their land, this is their homes, and they haven’t been given enough information or proof that they feel confident and safe that this is going to be a good neighborhood… How can we say this isn’t an environmental injustice?… I feel like we’re between a rock and a hard place. There is no good answer.”

Chestnut made a motion to deny the special exception, and Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler seconded the motion.

Public comment

Given the late hour and the number of members of the public who were waiting to speak, Cornell limited the public to 2 minutes each. Sixteen people called in asking the commission to support the motion (deny the application), and five asked the commission to support the application. 

Commission vote

After public comment, Cornell gave the commissioners another chance to speak. Alford said, “I want people to know that I am sympathetic to the folks that want to preserve their neighborhood… This is unfortunately a necessary project, and our goal right now is not to put GRU on trial or to talk about whether solar is, you know, the right thing to do. It is the land use decision, and I have to be in support of that. So I apologize to all of the people that I’m disappointing.”

Cornell called for a vote, and at least three commissioners could be heard saying “Aye” (to deny the application) before Dedenbach called out, “Can I offer something to you?” Cornell asked the other commissioners if they wanted to hear what he had to say, and most microphones were turned off, but Wheeler can be heard saying she wanted to hear it. Cornell said Dedenbach could offer “a sentence.”

Dedenbach appeared to read from a prepared statement: “Before you vote we would like to ask you one question. As we’ve stated, we are here based on our commitment to Alachua County, its citizens, and the process. While you have a motion on the floor to deny the application, we are willing to work with the citizens to address their concerns and comments and return to you with additional conditions to specifically address the community-based and commission-articulated concerns and suggestions. We voluntarily offer to make this concerted effort if the residents are willing to meet with us and collaborate on design elements and the site’s future, such as moving the field or renegotiating how this happens. We wish to have a transparent, inclusive, and open dialogue on the benefits, but that will take us a little bit of time. We had originally asked for a deferral, perhaps 60 days. We will keep you informed during the process and include your staff in meetings if they want to attend, and hopefully they will. We wish to further refine the application, and if you wish to lead, tell us to do so—or tell us to go away.”

Cornell gave Skop a chance to respond, and he said, “Home rule is important. I’ve heard this commission, time and time again, say home rule is important. You have an opportunity to deny it; overwhelming preponderance of people do not support this project, which will give GRU and the City of Gainesville negotiating leverage to go do the very same thing he now wants to do, but I asked them in March to do it, and they wouldn’t pick up the phone and call me. Vote no. Thank you.”

The commission voted 3-2 to deny the application, with Cornell and Alford voting to support it.

After the meeting, Skop said, “My clients are extremely grateful that the County Commission denied the application after listening to the competent and substantial evidence presented by the 30 property owners (representing 42 parcels of land) who opposed Origis Energy, GRU, and the Gainesville City Commission dumping their solar project into the backyard of a historic, rural African-American community way out in Archer.

“My clients would specifically like to thank Commissioners Chestnut, Wheeler, and Prizzia for voting to deny the application to help protect the fabric and character of this historic, rural African-American community. My clients also want to thank the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the City of Archer, and everyone else who expressed their overwhelming public opposition to the inappropriate location of this project.”

Updated at 7:16 p.m. to correct the vote from the April 21 Alachua County Planning Commission meeting.

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