One week after a power outage delayed residents from commenting on the issue, the Alachua County Commission voted to put lights out on a plan to build a new solar power facility.
Commissioners voted 3-2 at a special meeting Tuesday to deny a zoning exception for the 650-acre facility. The nearly 230,000 solar panels would have been constructed just north of downtown Archer at Southwest 170th Street and Southwest 95th Avenue.
Before the meeting was postponed last week, the solar company, First Solar, and the county’s team gave presentations supporting the proposed plan. First Solar had to apply for a special zoning exception to allow the land to be used for the facility.
In its first five minutes, the continued meeting was interrupted with an explicit video — a coronavirus-era practice known as Zoom bombing — but the discussion continued for more than seven hours. It was a mix of in-person and virtual, with some stakeholders on Zoom and some in the county administration building wearing masks.
With arguments ranging from considerations of environmental justice, wildlife impacts and even the possibility for sinkholes, affected residents pushed the county to deny the exception.
Alachua County Commissioner Charles Chestnut made the motion to deny the proposal, and Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler seconded.
“I think it’s the right project in the wrong place,” Commissioner Ken Cornell said.
The reasons for the denial included that the zoning exception was not consistent with county policies and plans, the company didn’t engage enough with the community and the area has local historical significance, Cornell said.
“Let’s face it: There is racial issues and racial tensions in this community,” Chestnut said. “It’s everywhere, man.”
For more than 100 years, the area has existed as a primarily Black community with descendants of enslaved people living on the land, said Sherry DuPree, who presented a historical perspective. She said she was a member of the African American History Task Force for the state for 15 years, lives in Gainesville and has lived in Florida since 1977.
Some residents said building the facility on the site would constitute environmental racism and affect their ability to pass their property down to future generations.
“If this application is approved, when I walk out of the front door of my home, I will see a ‘danger, high voltage’ sign next door,” said Michelle Rutledge, who lives across from the area on Southwest 95th Avenue. “That doesn’t sound like safe or fair treatment of all people to me.”
During meetings in August and September, the Alachua County Planning Commission heard testimony and recommended denial of the plan by a vote of 3-2. The county’s Growth Management Department staff also reviewed it to make sure it aligned with the county’s codes. That team recommended Tuesday that the county commission approve the special exception with conditions added.
“We expect the highest level of accountability for this project,” said Parikhit Sinha, a senior scientist with First Solar, during the company’s rebuttal. “That’s why we’re here, not to repeat the environmental injustices of the past, but to help the county move forward with clean energy.”
The company reiterated that solar panels would be safe and compatible with the community, and that race was not a factor in deciding the site’s location.
“The simple reality is that environmental justice concerns are not at issue here. This project is bringing benefit not harm,” said Laura Abram, First Solar’s project execution director. “Solar is by far is the least impactful use of this land.”
Commissioner Mike Byerly and Commission Chairman Robert Hutchinson voted against the final motion that denied the project.
Still, Byerly highlighted an urgent need for renewable energy.
“The problems we talked about tonight, and COVID stacked on top of that, just paled compared to the slow-motion train wreck of climate change,” Byerly said.
The denial, however, is not set in stone.
There is an appeals period for quasi-judicial hearings like Tuesday night’s meeting, when the county commission makes a decision based on evidence and testimony, said Gerald Brewington, senior planner for the Alachua County Department of Growth Management.
After a resolution is signed, there are 30 days to appeal it, Brewington said. If appealed, all the evidence from the meetings would be given to a hearing officer to review. The hearing judge would then make a final determination to uphold or overturn the decision, he said.