By: Terry Harris | Email: Click Here
Posted: March 28, 2019 | 3:15 p.m.
SUSSEX – After a year of negotiations, the Sussex County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a Conditional Use Permit at their March 21 meeting for building a 2,000 acre Solar Farm just outside the town of Waverly.
The project is being done by First Solar which, according to their website, is out of Tempe, Arizona, with offices out of Houston, Texas, and manufacturing of the solar panels out of Ohio. The planning commission had recommended approval of the project on a 9 to zero vote. With additional last-minute amendments, the board upheld their decision.
In response, First Solar’s Public Affairs East chairman Kevin Thornton, said, “We’re pleased with the decision of the Sussex County Board of Supervisors to approve the Conditional Use Permit for the Waverly Solar project. This has been a collaborative effort that will provide hundreds of construction jobs and contribute significant economic benefits to the county. We would like to thank the Sussex County Board, Planning Commission and department staff; and the broad community for their support on this project.”
In a candid interview after the meeting, some board members expressed their gratitude for all the work – and concessions – made by First Solar in planning the project, but also shared concerns about the possibility – and the potential impact – of future solar farm development in Sussex County.
“We are glad that we were able to work so closely with First Solar on this project, and greatly appreciate all of their concessions toward making it the best possible situation for the county,” commented BOS Chairman Susan Seward. “They have been very accommodating, and have an excellent reputation. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with solar companies, which is one of the reasons why we continue to take a long, hard look at the possibility of future solar development in the county. We appreciate that First Solar continued making further modifications and concessions right up until board approval. However, we need to keep in mind that the jobs this and any solar project will provide are only temporary, and largely those will go to out of town specialists that they will bring in for construction. Afterward, they will leave. In other words, there will be no lasting job benefits in Sussex County from this project.”
Addressing both the history of solar efforts thus far in Sussex County, and concerns about the economic impact of potential future expansion on Sussex County, she continued. “First Solar initially approached the county over a year ago to propose this second Solar Project in the county,” she said. “Bear in mind that the first, in Stony Creek, is only about 200 acres. At 2,000 acres and 118 megawatts, this new Waverly Solar Project is substantially larger. Going forward, the problem with solar farms is that they require a larger and larger footprint. For example, the county has received a letter of interest from another company for a project that would consume 13,000 acres. That is roughly 10 percent of the entire land mass of Sussex County.”
“On the two projects we will now have in Sussex County, because Sussex County’s Comprehensive Plan is silent on solar facilities, and our zoning does not really address solar, we were not in a posture to deny either of these projects. Had we done so, applicants potentially could have taken the county to court, which is why the planning commission recommended that we go forth with the project. That is also why I have been working very hard, done a great deal of research, and urged my colleagues on the board to retain a land use consultant to help us amend our Comprehensive Plan and our Zoning to address solar facilities directly. This will give the county much greater authority to direct what, if any, solar facilities come into the county in the future. Due to these concerns, Sussex County retained the services of Darren Coffey with the Berkley Group, a land use consulting firm, to help the County amend the comprehensive plan in zoning relative to solar. They have had two work groups with the planning commission leading up to a joint Board of Supervisors/Planning Commission public hearing and meeting which will be held on April 1.”
Board Member Eric Fly then addressed why, from the local government perspective, he feels that there are serious concerns about the use of land for further solar projects on Sussex County land.
“As board members and stewards of the county resources, it is our duty to look at the big picture – the impacts on tomorrow of decisions we make today,” Fly said. “First and foremost, Sussex County is an agricultural and forestry community. A big part of our tax base is standing timber. Because, besides residential and commercial buildings and structures, standing timber is the most valuable land we have, when the commissioner of revenue sends out tax bills, the land with the most mature standing timber on it has the highest assessed tax rate. So standing timber, particularly, is a very valuable piece of our tax base. The problem with these solar farms is that when we start taking the kind of acreage that the newer, larger solar farms consume out of agriculture and forestry, we are severely impacting the farming community – and we are severely impacting our Sussex County tax base. Plus the solar developers are driving up the cost of the farmland to a level that local farmers cannot afford to compete with, which is why farmland is being lost. The expected life of these solar farms is up to 40 years. And we won’t even go into things like the recent research indicating zinc leaching from the panel supports put into the soil. To put it in the simplest of terms, this means that even if they were completely cleared at the end of their lifespan, the land might never again be suitable for growing peanuts. For a historically agricultural and farm-based community, especially with a very long tradition of growing peanuts, that potentially changes the character of this community forever.”
“Solar developers try to present these projects as economically beneficial to the area,” Fly continued. “However, the biggest tool that local governments have relative to taxing industries in their county is the machinery and tools tax. Per state code, we cannot charge any machinery and tools tax if a solar project is under 20 megawatts – like the Stony Creek Project. And if it’s between 20 and 150 megawatts we can only charge 20 percent. Plus a state tax code on exemptions for pollution control and renewable energy equipment further diminishes what we can assess on the millions of dollars of solar equipment on these properties. By way of comparison, while many people didn’t want the landfill, it brings in between $4,000,000 and $5,000,000 every year to the county’s budget. Forgetting for the moment the impact of massive land and timber loss, let’s look at how that compares to the project we just voted on. By their own figures, it will only bring in $200,000 a year –– on approximately the same amount of land as the landfill bringing in the five million every year. and that’s only for the first 10 years. After that, the number continues to drop. It’s not rocket science. The potential negative economic impact from the tax loss from mega-solar farms for a place like Sussex County is staggering. And these are the revenues that pay for our schools, our infrastructure – everything that the county does.”
Elaborating further on the economics of solar, Seward said, “It is important to remember that the solar industry is only economically viable because it is currently subsidized by the federal government. Because the federal subsidies begin winding down next year, Solar developers know this clock is ticking and are rushing to act accordingly. Consequently, counties are faced with thousands of acres of farm and forestland now transformed into a use we see as quasi-industrial with no meaningful revenue attached. That’s why we want to get the word out that anyone with an interest in the future of Sussex County and the development of Solar Farms – pro or con – needs to know that this upcoming Public Hearing is the place to come make your voice heard. At previous meetings, we have been considering things we need to establish in the comprehensive plan. Now decisions will be made on things like limiting the size of any project that comes to us, discussing how far apart they are required to be, how close to incorporated towns they can be, establishing whether we have to remove standing forest – many serious considerations. To that end, we urge citizens to attend the Joint Public Hearing and Meeting on the new Sussex County Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Amendment on April 1 at 6 PM at the Sussex County courthouse. This is the opportunity to make your voice heard toward mapping the future of Sussex County.”