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Walton County rejects 900-acre Gulf Power solar energy facility

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — In a narrow Tuesday vote, Walton County commissioners turned back a Gulf Power proposal to build a solar energy generation facility on almost 900 acres in the northern part of the county.

Commissioners voted 3-2 against an application for a development order for the project, planned for 868 acres between and around Harrison Road and Brown Road, three miles east of U.S. Highway 331 at State Road 2A.

The sky and clouds are reflected in the panels at the solar power field on Eglin Air Force Base. Gulf Power hosted a media tour of the facility Tuesday to mark its first full year in operation.

The Chautauqua Solar Energy Center was planned as a 74.5-megawatt generation facility, which kept it under the 75-megawatt generation capacity that would have subjected it to the state licensing process under the Power Plant Siting Act. A megawatt of electricity is enough to power the average family home for a little more than a month. 

The vote found Commissioner Danny Glidewell and newly elected Commissioners Mike Barker and William McCormick opposing the proposed Gulf Power facility, and Commissioners Trey Nick and Tony Anderson in favor of granting the development order.

The commission's decision came after four hours of hearing a presentation from Gulf Power officials, followed by testimony from nearby property owners who had hired Tallahassee land-use attorney Terrell Arline to represent them in front of the commission.

More:Walton planners OK solar energy facility proposal

The decision reached Tuesday will be finalized with a vote on the final development order proposal, set for a special called commission meeting at 9 a.m. Jan. 7.

Gulf Power spokeswoman Sarah Gatewood said Wednesday that the utility is "disappointed in the county’s decision and are evaluating our options. We will continue to look for opportunities to bring clean, emissions-free solar to Northwest Florida."

Solar panels like these were installed in Niceville by Gulf Power in 2017.

At the commission meeting, Gulf Power engineer Brandon Eckard said the company has options on other property in Walton County, a couple of miles away from the site under consideration Tuesday, and also is looking at potential solar projects in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Escambia counties, along with a second solar project in Jackson County.

In a 3-2 Tuesday vote, Walton County commissioners rejected Gulf Power plans for a solar electricity generation facility in the northern part of the county.  In a Wednesday statement, Gulf Power said that while the company is disappointed in the county's decision, it will continue to look for opportunities to develop solar electricity generation capacity in Northwest Florida.

Among the things at issue Tuesday for commissioners was the question of whether the solar generation facility could be properly considered an agricultural use under the county's comprehensive land-use plan and its land development code.

In deciding that it was outside of the plan and the code, the commission went against Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter, who told commissioners that the solar facility complied with both documents. The commission's decision also rejected the position of Destin attorney Dana Matthews, who has represented Gulf Power in connection with the facility, and has maintained that the solar facility is an allowable usage under county regulations.

Arline, on the other hand, contended that county requirements were that any solar facility had to be associated with an agricultural use on the property. The Chautauqua Solar Energy Center, he argued, "takes this (land) out of agricultural production, and makes it something else."

More:2018: Solar array at Eglin AFB performs almost as anticipated

Carpenter, though, countered that there was no requirement that the solar facility be functionally related to any agricultural use. The facility, he said, “doesn’t have to depend on something else in order to be allowed.” 

Commissioners opposed to the facility also wondered about the adequacy of local fire protection in the event of an emergency at the site. They also expressed concerns about its impact on property values and quality of life in the surrounding area, and the potential of groundwater contamination from the zinc that was to be used as part of the fences and solar panel mounting poles needed at the site.

“I think there is a substantial risk for fire, and that risk would impact the neighbors," Glidewell said.

He also was critical of what he saw as Gulf Power's late interaction with the Liberty Fire Department, a volunteer fire department eight miles from the site, with regard to the solar generation facility. A promise from Gulf Power representatives to work with the fire department on specialized training and equipment was not enough to persuade Glidewell or the other opposing commissioners on that point.

Even Anderson's support for the proposal was lukewarm.

“I don’t particularly like this project," he said before Tuesday's vote, "but I do believe it meets the comp plan and the code, and I don’t believe there was any substantial, consistent evidence that it did not.”

Commissioners heard Tuesday from a number of adjacent and nearby property owners, many of whom are engaged in agriculture.

“They are not an agriculture operation," said Brown Road resident David Herring. Then, referencing the Gulf Power plan to have grass planted among the rows of solar panels at the facility, Herring said, “you’re not agriculture because you’ve got grass growing in your yard.”

Also speaking out against the proposed Chautauqua Solar Energy Center was Mark Walker of the Caney Creek Community Association, a neighborhood group.

“I don’t think it’s fair for a regulated utility to come in ... to the detriment of area homeowners," Walker said. "This will be an eyesore in our community, and it will most likely discourage future construction on adjacent land. Would you look at purchasing next to this plant?”

The project did get some community support. Michele Burns, executive director of CareerSource Okaloosa Walton, which provides an array of employment services, said that jobs available during construction of the facility could help get workers trained in solar energy technology.

Similarly, Windy Crozier, director of Emerald Coast Technical College, touted the workforce development opportunities associated with the project.

Roy Baker, business development manager for Opportunity Florida, an area economic development alliance, noted that the project would increase the county's tax base and move the area toward "zero emission" electric power production.