Plans for new solar farm generate heat among Newberry residents
After visiting Newberry all her life, Monica Lerew permanently moved to her 10-acre property three years ago excited to live in the peaceful countryside.
But this peace is now being threatened as plans for a new solar farm are in place.
For generations, Lerew’s family has owned 750 acres of land in Newberry. But portions of the property will soon be home to an alternate energy source for the state. While they are not opposed to cleaner energy, Lerew and her neighbors who will be surrounded by the solar farm are concerned about the impact this could have on their health, environment and quality of life.
“This is where we live,” Lerew said. “This is where a lot of people are raising their families, and we just want to be heard.”
A group of residents banded together to bring their concerns to Newberry’s commissioners and to Watermelon Pond Solar LLC, the company that purchased the land and is owned by NextEra Energy, the parent company of Florida Power and Light.
They say they are mainly worried about the ambient temperature increase generated from the solar panels, the low humming noise produced when the farm is operating at full power, the potential for groundwater contamination, the decrease in their property values and the magnetic fields produced by solar panels.
One of Lerew’s neighbors has a pacemaker, for example, and she said they are concerned the magnetic fields might interfere with the pacemaker’s functions.
Lerew battles cystic fibrosis and is worried the heat increase will be a serious issue for her. She had a double lung transplant 10 years ago, but just normal heat conditions are hard for her, she said.
After her surgery, she considered her move to Newberry a second chance at life in a place nestled in nature and on a property scattered with many fond memories from her childhood. But now her home is becoming another casualty at the hands of development and big business, she said.
“I used to say there’s more cows in Newberry than people, but that no longer is true,” Lerew said.
Above, a map shows the approximate size and location of the planned Newberry solar farm. Note: Not every parcel shaded in red will contain NextEra's solar panels, as some remain individual landowners' private property.
‘Not against green energy’
In Jeff Holcomb’s mind, the solar farm is better than building another huge housing development or subdivision. Holcomb has lived on a five-acre property in Newberry since 2017 and is for himself and his neighbors. Still, he said, the planned energy site would take away from the undisturbed farm lifestyle in Newberry.
His property will soon be bordered by the solar plant on three sides.
He compiled and presented evidence-based reasoning in a letter to the city government to back up residents’ apprehensions.
“I’m not against green energy,” Holcomb said. “I just want them to do it responsibly.”
To ease some of their nerves, residents are requesting the solar company pay for water testing to make sure the plant is not contaminating their water source, Holcomb said. Everyone in the area uses well water, he said, so it is imperative they know if it is safe to drink.
Residents are also asking for the solar company to build the energy plant with adequate buffer zones to keep it from directly abutting their properties. In a letter he wrote to city commissioners, Holcomb suggested they require the solar farm to be built with a 10-acre or 660-foot buffer.
He also recommended updating city ordinances to have stronger language to protect residents before construction begins.
The ordinance currently in place for industrial and commercially used land that abuts agriculturally zoned property requires 10-foot wide buffers the full length of the property line, and the buffer must be made from native trees.
Based on initial interactions with the town leaders, he said it seems like Newberry’s mayor, Jordan Marlowe, and other city officials disagree that any changes need to be made to the buffer zone requirements.
“We’ve made it quite clear that there would be a buffer zone and that the solar farm would not be seen from the roads,” said Monty Farnsworth, a Newberry city commissioner. “So, I’m not sure why that complaint is circulating.”
But Tim Marden, another city commissioner, said he does not think the requirements listed in the ordinance are enough. However, as leaders of a local government, he said it is their role to protect peoples’ rights, and the solar company is also entitled to those rights.
“Property owners have property rights whether it’s a company or an individual,” Marden said. “It’s a little bit of a challenge sometimes if we become a referee trying to balance the rights of the property owners.”
A search for compromise
The city is always interested in encouraging commercial, nonresidential growth, meaning developments like solar farms instead of housing developments are preferred, Marlowe said. But Newberry cares about its residents, he said, so the city officials are trying to compromise.
“It’s been kind of a strange conversation,” he said. “[Solar farms are] very quiet. They’re good neighbors.”
Complaints he receives are generally concerned with the aesthetic of the solar farm, he said. Most have complained the farm will be an eye sore, and so during the next city commission meeting, Marlowe said they will be discussing a change in the ordinance to require a 20-foot vegetative buffer.
Even with this large energy development, Newberry is still a small town, he said, and there is still plenty of undeveloped, agricultural land that will remain untouched because it is protected. Where the solar farm will be housed is inside an urban service area that is subject to the addition of urban services. People moving inside an urban service area should expect development to be around them, he said.
Even though they are in the early stages of this project, Marlowe is amazed by the responsiveness and friendliness of the solar company. They have sat in on town meetings to listen and are being cooperative at the moment, he said.
Florida Renewable Partners, a sister company of Florida Power and Light involved in the development, designs solar projects in compliance with all local, state and federal requirements, Andrew Conatser, senior project manager for Florida Renewable Partners, wrote in a statement.
Throughout the development of a project, Conatser wrote, they listen to resident’s concerns and work closely with neighbors, experts and local leaders to ensure they understand the community’s interest.
So far, Holcomb said he agrees the solar company has been cordial and willing to listen to him and other locals.
Watermelon Solar Pond purchased the land from three different sellers all from the same family for nearly $49 million.
The rise of solar power
Once completed, this solar energy plant will be one of almost 6,100 other solar projects scattered throughout the state, and the newest one in Alachua County, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
This proposal follows Duke Energy’s 700-acre solar farm in High Springs that finished construction April 13.
High Springs residents two years ago fought a similar battle when Duke Energy bought 720 acres of land for the newly built solar farm.
Unlike Newberry, High Springs did not have ordinances in place before the solar farm’s site plan was finalized, Katherine Weitz, a High Springs city commissioner, said
“It’s really unfortunate,” Weitz said. “We were not forward thinking there.”
There was strong pushback from the High Springs community, and Weitz was the only government official to meet with the residents and hear their concerns, she said.
Weitz said she advocated for a 500-foot buffer, but Duke Energy dismissed the recommendation. The company said they would plant trees, but there was nothing legally requiring them to do so, she said.
Solar farms do not belong in residential areas, Weitz said. People live on what they consider to be their five acres of heaven in peace and quiet for a reason, she said.
She also recommended building the solar farm on one of the five closed landfills in Alachua County. She argued that people are doing this everywhere, and the space is already an industrial facility. This idea was also shot down.
The “green” in solar energy should really be in reference to the money these companies are earning, she said.
“They sell this like ‘We love the environment; we’re going to sing Kumbaya, and we’re going to save a tree,’” Weitz said. “No! This is about the bottom line. This is about your profit.”
As of 2022, there is $14.3 billion invested in the solar energy industry in the state of Florida, according to Solar Energy Industries Association. Among the 171 solar installations, there is enough solar energy to power almost 1.2 million homes in the state.
The solar farm in Newberry will contribute to the projected growth of roughly 10,800 more megawatts available to Florida within the next five years.