County OKs solar array on prairie's northern rim
Published: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 10:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 10:28 p.m.
The Alachua County Commission approved a zoning request for a solar array that is planned for a neighborhood near Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park following about four hours of debate Tuesday evening.
The question of whether the project was appropriate for a residential area where homeowners value the natural landscape was central to the discussion. Some residents argued the project would be a commercial encroachment into the Idylwild/Serenola Special Area Study, within which the project would be located.
The zoning special exception along with a preliminary site plan were approved 4-1, with Commissioner Susan Baird in dissent.
The 1.5-megawatt solar array is planned for an approximately nine-acre property near the prairie’s northern rim, although the project won’t take up the entire acreage.
Sybac Solar would establish the power-generating structure and sell the renewable energy it produces to Gainesville Regional Utilities as part of a 20-year, fixed-price contract through GRU’s Solar Feed-in Tariff Program.
County staff recommended approval of the zoning-related special exception for the project. The solar array is considered an institutional use similar to a cell phone tower or sewer line under the Alachua County Comprehensive Plan, which means it is allowed in any zoning district, according to the staff presentation. It is also considered a major utility.
The Alachua County Planning Commission, however, voted in favor of denying the request after a few board members said they felt the location wasn’t appropriate for this type of project.
Staff determined the solar array would have a negligible impact on the neighborhood, according to Growth Management Director Steve Lachnicht. “The solar panel does not specifically generate noise, lighting, traffic or odors,” he said.
Gary Dounson of Gary Dounson and Associates, which represented Sybac Solar’s interests at Tuesday’s quasi-judicial proceedings, pointed out the differences between the impacts of the solar array and a residential estate.
A residence would involve noise and light while the solar array wouldn’t create either, he said. While the solar array would generate electricity, a home would consume it.
The solar park will generate power for 160-plus homes, he said.
Jefferson Braswell, an attorney representing Sybac Solar’s interests, told the commission this project represents a great model for how to get properties into conservation.
“What you have is a property that is not pristine,” Braswell said. The nine-acre piece of land is used for cattle grazing and has been used for agricultural purposes for decades, he said. It also has a former cattle dipping vat on-site.
Sybac Solar will put in the solar array that would stand there for 20 years, which Braswell pointed out is a relatively short period of time compared to the life of Paynes Prairie, and it will be conservation land from then on.
The company plans to donate the land to Friends of Paynes Prairie, which will lease the land back to it for the duration of its two-decade operation.
“I am a little surprised that it’s met with this much adversity,” Braswell said.
Commissioners Mike Byerly and Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson are on the board of directors for Friends of Paynes Prairie, but that did not constitute a voting conflict, according to Assistant County Attorney David Schwartz.
During public comment, around a dozen residents offered their opinions on the project, which were mixed.
One resident said they should have had a crystal ball when the Idylwild/Serenola Special Area Study was designed so they would have known to prohibit institutional infrastructure like this solar array. She said the community only wanted low-density residential structures along the prairie rim.
“It is against all the intentions and protections that we tried to put in,” she said.
Doug Reich, who has lived on Rocky Point Road for more than three decades, said he supported Sybac Solar’s plan after hearing the details.
“I went there initially skeptical, thinking this was a bad idea,” he said of prior neighborhood meetings he attended. Now he feels comfortable with it.
Commissioner Susan Baird questioned why the solar array would be implemented on the ground when there are plenty of rooftops in the county on which it could be placed.
Baird pointed out that a rooftop project takes advantage of the footprint already established by the building rather than create a new impact.
“It’s still nature, and you’ve got so many rooftops that could be used,” she said.
Hutchinson said he believed this is a good project. “I think it’s in the spirit of the Idylwild/Serenola study that more land end up in conservation, as this will,” he said.
Byerly said this is the most “environmentally benign” use of this land other than to pull out of it altogether, which won’t happen since it’s private property. “This is clearly in the best interest of Alachua County’s environment,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting, the County Commission approved a planned development for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, of Alachua community, which has long-term expansion plans.
The Hare Krishna community in Alachua wants to expand its operation gradually over the next 20 years, with plans to build a new temple and a retreat center along with lodging for visitors.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or email@example.com.