County commission makes changes to solar project regulations, removes requirement for public to wear masks in County buildings

Commissioner Anna Prizzia


At the October 5 Alachua County Commission Special Meeting, Carl Smart was confirmed as Deputy County Manager. Smart replaces James Harriott, who left in March and now works as Director of Engineering, Transportation at CHW Professional Consultants, according to LinkedIn.

Solar projects

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The board also talked about solar projects, and one piece of that is their goal that by 2030, 100% of energy purchased or produced by County facilities must be from solar, with an interim target of 50% by 2025.

The County has a requirement in the Land Development Code that all new development be under 30% tree canopy in 20 years, so the commissioners talked about whether that should apply to industrial solar plants. Staff calculated that a 30% tree canopy requirement on a square mile solar installation would give an 860-foot buffer around the solar panels, which is close to the 1000 feet requested by the neighbors of the Archer facility that was recently denied. (However, they later corrected that and said it would be about a 400-foot buffer.)

State law now says that a solar facility is a permitted use in agricultural zoning, but the County can set requirements like buffers and landscaping. The current proposed regulation is for a 75-foot high-density buffer. These regulations would specifically exempt rooftop and accessory solar systems. 

Sean McLendon, the County Economic Development and Food Systems Manager, told the board that if they were to produce the energy themselves to get to 50% energy from solar, they would need a system of about 13 MW, costing around $20 million and sited on about 74 acres. If they were to use rooftops of County buildings, they could get to about 40% of the goal. But about 97% of the County’s energy comes from GRU, “so the de facto energy policy of this board is in essence whatever the City of Gainesville’s energy policy is.”

McLendon also said that within GRU’s service territory, only about 50 MW of solar can be added “before the grid starts to become unbalanced. So this is really a question for our community of how do we deploy that next 50 MW, and that’s how I would really like to begin to engage GRU and the City of Gainesville, because therein lies a real opportunity to potentially re-envision that.”

Commissioner Anna Prizzia said her top priority is to “focus on how we get it on the rooftops of our commercial buildings or parking lots,” so she would support revising their “a little bit overly ambitious goal” of 100%, but although she wanted to get there “as soon as we can get there… I don’t want to do that at the detriment of the idea of distributing solar and start getting this idea of green field development as a solution to our problem.” She also felt like “there’s no reason for us to exempt these large green field developments from our tree canopy requirements… cutting down trees to create solar sort of is the antithesis, to me, of what we need to be doing.”

Commissioner Mary Alford said that energy storage is the answer to the limit on solar because “they have to generate enough energy to have a back-up for that solar, so when the sun goes behind a cloud, the power plant has to already be producing the energy to make up that deficit… The answer is energy storage… that’s becoming more and more viable… In many parts of the country, utilities are investing in storage and distributing it across the grid, just like we distribute solar across the grid.”

Chair Ken Cornell said he thinks the technology companies like Tesla are making good progress on energy storage. “If we continue down this path of energy resilience and renewable energy for overriding goal, the technology is going to get us there. I don’t want us to come off our goals… I want to encourage as much solar as possible, as quickly as possible.” He agreed that solar installations should have to meet the 30% tree canopy requirement. 

Prizzia moved to accept staff’s recommendation (continue to monitor and participate in community discussions and re-evaluate County policies on solar, particularly to ensure compliance with recent changes in state law, defining what is meant by “preservation and strengthening of community and neighborhood character,” re-evaluating County solar goals, and focusing on encouraging distributed solar), to no longer exempt greenfield solar from the 30% tree canopy requirement, and to include a minimum 75-foot buffer for solar with the inclusion of a 150-foot buffer for residential areas. Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler seconded the motion. 

Cornell said for him, “preservation and strengthening of community and neighborhood character” means “listen to them. Earlier and often… That’s more to the applicant because i think that solves most of the problems.”

Alford added a third part to the motion, having staff look at ideal potential locations for large-scale solar projects. 

During public comment on the motion, Nathan Skop, who represents the neighbors of one of the Archer solar projects and is a former Florida Public Service Commissioner, asked the board to adopt the requirement that any utility-scale solar project, 10kW or greater, should have a minimum of a 1,000-foot setback from the property line of any residential, rural, or agricultural property having a residential dwelling, to mitigate heat island effects. He added, “FPL doesn’t have these problems because they site their projects in the middle of nowhere and have huge buffers. But the last two denials have been right in the heart of historic black African-American communities. So how do we solve that problem?”

Cornell asked Skop whether the 30% tree buffer would help mitigate the heat island effect, and Skop replied that it’s uncertain because the science is based on distance, and “you don’t get to ambient temperature from the perimeter of a solar field until approximately 1,000 feet.”

Gerie Crawford, a neighbor of one of the denied Archer plants, also asked for an increased buffer. Connie Lee also called and said the buffer should be no less than 500 feet but at least 1,000 feet in a residential rural area. A third Archer resident also asked for 1,000-foot buffers. 

Cornell asked staff if there was a reason why they could not specify buffers of 1,000 feet, and the answer was that the buffer would apply to “similar permitted uses… It’s not just on solar facilities. It’s on solar facilities and any other similar uses.”

The motion passed unanimously. 

Changing COVID-19 policies

During manager comment, County Manager Michele Lieberman said that since COVID-19 community transmission is “really way down,” she would change the policy for members of the public inside County buildings to recommending masks for unvaccinated people. She also said the County had purchased several mask dispensers to place in County buildings so they’re available to anyone who might want one. She added, “We will look to the Health Department as far as what percentage, if we get to that, we will put the masks in public buildings back in place.”

For County employees, Lieberman said vaccinated employees won’t have to wear masks, but unvaccinated employees will be required to wear a mask at all times indoors. Employees do not have to wear masks outside, whether vaccinated or not. The County will continue weekly testing for employees who are unvaccinated. 

Cornell emphasized that the County needs to continue that approach: “We are not hiring folks that are not vaccinated. I think we need to continue to test folks that are not vaccinated and continue to encourage folks to get vaccinated. I just think that’s really important that we kind of give that clear direction to our employees. We very much want you all to be vaccinated. If you are not, we want you to be tested every week. And from my perspective, you know, my feeling about that is—indefinitely. Until CDC says otherwise… I feel that way here. I feel that way at the Library Governing Board.”


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