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Gilchrist Commission approves 795 acre solar farm

The Gilchrist County Commission took the first step to approve a 795-acre solar farm on the outskirts of Northwest Trenton Monday night. The board unanimously approved Special Use Permit 2019-01 by a 4-0 roll call vote. Commissioner Thomas filed a conflict of interest to the application after his employer, Piedmont Farms, Inc. is the largest of the two property owners involved in the 30-year lease to Duke Energy, Inc.
David M. Lang, Jr. Gilchrist County attorney briefed the Commission in the beginning of the quasi-judicial hearing on their decision must be determined from factual information presented in this 4:15 public hearing. The Commissioners reported that they had each received information from Joe Lander, a Gilchrist County resident on the negative effects of toxic chemicals in each of the solar panels designed to be used on this proposed solar farm in Gilchrist County.
The Special Use Permit 2019-01 is being sought by Duke Energy Florida, LLC.; in cooperation with the landowners: Piedmont Farms Inc. of Jacksonville, FL and Carol Hill and Helen Jordan as trustees. The application involves five parcels that border US Highway 129, County Road 307A, SW 20th Avenue and SW 17th Court, a connector road between CR 307A and US 129. Duke Energy representative, Danny Collins explained to the Commission that Duke Energy actually purchased the proposed solar farm from a third party group, Trenton Solar Inc. The applicant representative reported the lease on this solar farm property is for a term of 30 years. Collins also answered a question from the board on how long do these solar panels last after being installed. The solar panels are designed for this project for 25 years of operation and these panels will turn daily to receive the highest volume of solar energy during the daylight from the sun.
Lang explained to the Commission that the SUP 2019-01 for the 795 acres of property would also have a 60 feet by 12 feet office building located on the property. The attorney went through the Gilchrist County Land Development code requirements and explained that the current A-2 agriculture zoned property, that is currently in pine trees and open pastures, will change to become commercial-industrial zoned property. The staff recommends the proposed use is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and Land Development code. Lang, the interim planning director, recommended the Commission require heavier natural buffer along the highways, county roads and surrounding the Trenton Cemetery. He also explained that the approval of SUP-2019-01 allows the applicant to construct the proposed solar farm on the 795 acres identified in the application. The applicant, Duke Energy, if approved will next be required to submit a design layout plan to the Commission that must be approved by the board, before construction on this proposed solar farm could begin.
Commission chairman, Todd Gray opened the meeting to allow the public to address the Commission with their concerns involving the electric solar power development.
Lindsey Lander, a Trenton attorney, spoke to the Commission representing his parents Joe and Sue Lander and their interests and how this solar farm would negatively affect the agriculture zoned property and the current way of life in this agriculture zoned area. Lander presented information identifying studies that report toxic chemicals are in the solar power panels that will be installed on this property. “I’m not convinced and my family is not sure that this is the right place for this solar development to be located,” explained Lander.
Don Thomas, a Gilchrist County native, addressed the Commission asking for information on the solar farm and how it would affect this agriculture area in Gilchrist County. Thomas, a former Superintendent of Schools in Gilchrist County, asked the Commission to give this application time to research and discover more information on the impacts that this industrial development would have on Gilchrist County. Thomas explained that he has a home and 63 acres of property that is located very near the proposed property development and he is concerned that this change will have a negative impact on the property, the values and the ability to sell his property in the future.
Mrs. Rose, a resident and property owner along SW 17th Avenue, told the board that she and her husband are surrounded on three sides by this proposed solar farm. “I have concerns involving this solar farm and all of the impacts that are associated by being surrounded by this development,” she added.
George Rose told the Commission that there was a 30’ elevation difference from he and his wife’s property to the surrounding solar development. He has concerns on the impacts of these solar panels, the noise they make during the day, up to 85 decibels and how the water runoff of the current timber use and where all of the water will go once the trees are removed and all of this clay based top soil will force the water onto the lowest elevated surrounding property. Rose pointed out that this is a $200 million dollar development for Duke Energy and he realizes that he and his wife and their small residential parcel will be a complete change. When they purchased and moved to this area years ago, it was surrounded by planted pine forest, and soon all of the trees will be gone and the traffic on this road, SW 17th Avenue will become a nightmare and their way of life will be devastated. “We realize what development is, we moved to Gilchrist County for a quieter, more enjoyable way of life, and now it has found us here,” he added. Rose pointed out that this many solar panels in one location has been studied and has reduced the temperature in this area by up to 2 degrees. This could be devastating on the local agriculture production. He also pointed out that the expansion of SR 26 to the north around Trenton could no longer be considered through this identified property. He asked the Commission what would they do involving the future of SR 26, it is busy now, what will happen in ten years when this development becomes a reality. There will also be a negative property value on the surrounding neighboring property in adjoining areas, he added.
Chairman Todd Gray explained that this solar farm is a benefit to Gilchrist County.
The chairman asked for questions and a decision from the board. Commissioner Martin explained that he was in favor of solar energy, but he felt that there were some details that needed to be worked out involving the development of this solar farm at this location. Martin made a motion to approve SUP 2019-01 to allow a solar farm to be located on the 795 acre parcel in this location in Gilchrist County and that the Commission identify the buffer areas that need to be added in specific locations, make sure the noise level from the operation of the solar panels does not exceed 85 decibels, make sure that at the end of the 30 year lease that the leasee will be responsible for the removal and complete cleanup of the property before it is returned to the property owner. Commissioner Langford gave a second to the motion before the vote was taken approving SUP 2019-01.

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