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County issues 60-day moratorium on solar farms

A 60-day moratorium on the issuance of permits for construction of solar farms within Grady County has been issued by the Grady County Commission.
Commissioners ordered the temporary ban Tuesday night, but the details of exactly what is being regulated is yet to be ironed out. The board instructed County Attorney Kevin S. Cauley to draft a written moratorium and authorized Chairman Elwyn Childs to execute it.
According to Grady County Administrator Carlos Tobar, the county has been contacted by an out-of-state firm interested in constructing a solar farm on a 500-acre tract in the county. The county administrator says the firm is in negotiations with a local property owner and the company contacted the county to inquire about land use regulations and permitting.
Apparently Tobar had previously obtained verbal approval from commissioners for the moratorium and Tuesday night’s action was to ratify that decision. Tobar also pushed commissioners to set a public hearing date for the proposed “solar panel” ordinance.
Commission Chairman Elwyn Childs expressed frustration about not being fully informed on the subject and not hearing about a public hearing until now.
“Am I supposed to know or not,” Chairman Childs said.
County Attorney Kevin S. Cauley told the chairman “this is not my initiative” and said he only learned about the matter yesterday due to a breakdown in email communications between him and Tobar.
Cauley explained that including regulations regarding solar farms would be appropriate additions to the county’s existing land use regulations. The county attorney said any revision to the land use regulations requires a public hearing.
Cauley suggested the board should have a proposed ordinance developed prior to holding a public hearing,
such as the one the county held in regards to the chicken house issue last year.
Commission Vice Chairman Ray Prince said he supported  a moratorium in order to give the board the opportunity to think over all of the pros and cons of solar farms and decide exactly how to regulate them here.
“They are not the most attractive things in the world,” Prince said. He also said there were very few areas in the county where a solar farm of 500 acres could be erected.
Commissioner LaFaye Copeland requested information on who was seeking to construct the solar farm here and where it was to be built, but Tobar declined to provide specifics.
Commissioner T.D. David questioned if the firm already had a contract to sell the power to another utility and Tobar indicated they did not. David questioned if a firm would actually build a facility without already having an agreement to sell the electricity generated by the solar farm.
Vice Chairman Prince said it would need to be located near a large electric transmission line.
According to county officials, a firm has contacted a local property owner and is negotiating or has negotiated a lease similar to ones routinely executed with local property owners for cell phone towers.
Commissioner Keith Moye questioned how the county could benefit from construction of solar farms here. Vice Chairman Prince said the taxes on the personal property paid by the solar farm company would create significant new tax revenue for the county.
A large solar farm has been constructed in Decatur County owned by the Decatur County Board of Commissioners. Chairman Childs said he spoke with a newly elected county commissioner in Decatur County and a couple of Decatur County farmers about the solar farm issue. According to the information received by Chairman Childs, the county agreed to the lease of county property for the solar farm due to weak Decatur County finances. Childs said Decatur County leased the company 1,000 acres for $600 per acre annually.
However, Chairman Childs said the Decatur County official told him there are holding ponds to be constructed, drainage issues and other things to be considered. “There are things we need to look into,” Chairman Childs said.
Cauley said a moratorium of 90 days or up to 180 days would not be unreasonable, but Commissioner David recommended a shorter time.
“I was hoping we could move quicker than that,” David said.
Cauley said the board could make it for 60 days and extend it if necessary.
Commissioner Copeland said this issue was different than the chicken house ordinance. “We already have chicken houses, but we don’t have this. I don’t know what all it consists of and my only concern is that we not rush to do something and not really understand what we are doing,” Commissioner Copeland said.
Vice Chairman Prince concurred and suggested having a work session to talk through the issues. Tobar was instructed to invite experts to attend that can answer questions and explain what is involved in solar farm development.
Vice Chairman Prince said he had talked about the issue with the Decatur County administrator and he had told Prince that Decatur County officials did not want to “over do it” by permitting the construction of too many solar farms there.
In addition to the visual appearance concern, Prince said depending on the solar farm’s size it could disrupt the natural movement of wildlife in the county, which is something he opposed.

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