The Alachua County Planning Commission decided Wednesday, after a month-long postponement, to approve the exception for a 74.5-megawatt solar facility straddling the Alachua and Putnam County line.
Florida Power and Light proposed to plant 300,000 solar panels over a total 684 acres, 413 of which lie in Alachua County, East of County Road 219A and North of County Road 1474. The county’s Board of Commissioners will determine in December as to whether the land exception will finally be granted, with the planning commission’s approval acting as a recommendation.
Last month’s meeting for the project was deferred by FPL’s attorney after the discussion kept returning to the same issue: a condition in the plan addressing the monitoring of avian mortality.
FPL wanted to comply with state requirements for reporting avian death; The Environmental Protection Department suggested such reporting was insufficient to the monitoring and research on finding whether a link exists between solar panel placement and bird deaths.
“Our Environmental Protection Department came up with a revised condition and we’re hoping it’s mutually agreeable,” said senior planner Jerry Brewington before the Wednesday meeting. “That seemed to be the one issue that was holding it up.”
The now approved condition was developed in accordance with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and states that FPL will agree to monitor and report avian mortality incidents in their already existing DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center. If delayed for any reason, the study will be conducted at the Alachua/Putnam site within 12 months of its commission.
The previous two-and-a-half hour meeting culminated in heavy public commentary, mainly from Putnam County residents speaking out on road, drainage and post-project land use issues. Only one man spoke Wednesday.
Alys Daly, spokesperson for FPL, said they had been meeting with the public to answer questions and assure them the project works well with an agricultural community. Daly said no foundation is poured and that the panels are low to the ground and staked in, so when removed, the field remains the same.
“It really works in harmony with the environment,” said Daly, commenting on the vegetative barriers that would surround the property’s wetlands and the additionally planted vegetation screen along some of the road. “You really wouldn’t know they were there, unless you already knew they were there.”
Daly said solar projects like these are relatively new to Florida and the more dialogue with the community on their workings, the more excited surrounding residents seem to be.
Howard Griffin, a Putnam County resident and owner of Diamond Bar Ranch, adamantly spoke against the project last meeting, saying FPL was going to ruin his pastures, watering stations and irrigation systems with their proposed right-of-way across his property.
Griffin said six FPL representatives visited his wife and neighbor Wednesday morning to discuss the potential for burying the power lines underground. Though Griffin said he wouldn’t assuredly know what the plans were for another week, he was more than willing to work with FPL and said, “any kind of issue we had, we resolved it right there.”
“I really expect and hope it’ll be a happy ending to something that sounded horrible,” Griffin said before the meeting.
Daly said the Putnam County Board of Commissioners already approved an additional FPL solar center, Coral Farms, earlier this week, which is a little over 600 acres. It will produce around the same wattage of energy with roughly the same number of panels as the solar farm straddling the Alachua/Putnam line. The Putnam board will make its decision for this site in November.