By Callie Hietala
The Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) denied two requests for special use permits related to solar projects in Axton after a four-hour meeting on Nov. 24.
An estimated 75 people attended as the board heard from Project Development Manager Warren Sakey, of Rocky Ford Solar Energy, LLC and Trey Lopez, of Axton Solar, LLC.
The Rocky Ford project proposed building a large-scale, 90-megawatt facility, covering about 800 acres, in the northeast vicinity of Mountain Valley Road and Dees Road.
Axton Solar requested a 484.3-acre expansion on its previously approved 1,203 acres for a 200-megawatt facility.
Invenergy, the developer behind Rocky Ford Solar, “is the largest developer of renewable energy projects in North America,” Sakey said, and added that the Axton project began in 2019.
During those two years, the company sought to engage with the community, do site studies, “and make sure we did this right,” he said.
“All of the solar-generating facilities are located on a single footprint,” Sakey said, rather than being strung out over a wide area. “It is set back from throughways that are screened by naturally vegetated areas. Most people will not even see this project.
“All of the naturally vegetated areas that are within this project footprint are going to be put into conservation easements,” Sakey said, which would help screen the property from throughways and adjoining properties and prevent erosion.
“I understand there’s a lot of passion, a lot of emotion,” related to the project, Sakey said. “If we come to a lawful agreement with these property owners who have determined that this is the right thing for their family, for their economic future, for their children, is it right to hold that up, hold back tax revenue for the county because one or two individuals can’t be satisfied?
“The benefits of the project to the community are going to be great,” Sakey said, and added the solar farm would create hundreds of jobs during the 12- to 18-month construction period, and other long-term jobs.
“The tax revenue will be substantial,” he added, adding that the project would generate millions of dollars in tax revenue for the county.
Sakey said the company would also give the county a signing bonus.
“We understand the county is seeking to replace school textbooks, and there’s a $500,000 budget shortfall for that. We are more than willing for the project to close that gap, plus another $500,000 for other needed infrastructure investments in the county,” he said.
Several attendees spoke both for and against the project.
Edwin Robertson, who wore a yellow ‘support solar’ sticker, said “no one loves farming, or the land more than I do.”
Robertson added that he planned for the land to be his retirement someday, and noted that most farmers don’t have retirement funds.
“Our land is our future,” he said. adding the project would not only provide for his retirement but would continue to provide for his children and grandchildren.
Julie Hairston, who lives in Georgia and owns Sandy River Farms, said she has seen the benefits of solar investment in her home state. “I am proud of my opportunity to participate in this project.”
Megan Taylor said that, as a mother, it was good to know the project would provide financial freedom for her family.
G.W. Robertson said revenue from the project would help everyone in the community. “I think I’ve earned the right to make this decision with the time that I’ve put in on the land.”
Mary Thompson expressed concerns with the solar projects removing the value of the land as an agricultural resource.
“The stampede now to get the money that is available out there for these types of projects, you guys are going to be swamped” with requests, she cautioned the board. “When does it stop?”
Herb Atwell, owner of Mountain Valley Brewing, said he and his wife, Peggy, invested their life savings into building the brewery, which relies heavily on its viewshed.
“I hope we’ve brought growth to this county,” Atwell said, and added that he is worried about how the solar project could affect the business. He urged the board to find a balance between the area’s natural beauty and solar projects, which he said he supports. “I’m asking that we make sure we’re doing the right thing here.”
Lenny Holste said that he often goes to Mountain Valley Brewing, and that his daughter, who loves the view, said she wants to get married there. “What will that view be when it’s time for her to get married?”
Kirk Cotter, owner of Mountain Valley Artisan Barn, which hosts events such as weddings, also expressed concern about how the project might affect his business, particularly the views around his property and the noise of construction.
“I can’t run my business, I can’t have a wedding with people pounding posts while people are trying to say, ‘I do,’” he said.
Sakey said that the solar project is one of the best ways to preserve the land for agriculture. After 30 years “this land is going to go back to agriculture.” Technologies are changing so rapidly that what is built today likely would be outdated in 30-years, rendering the project obsolete.
He said he had spoken with Mountain Valley Brewing about an additional setback beyond the 100-feet mandated by the county.
“I do want to be clear that the property they are referring to, that they keep saying, ‘this is a beautiful property,’ that doesn’t belong to the brewery. That belongs to Mr. Robertson. That is his property, and this is America. I appreciate that they have that view, but that is someone else’s property, and this is their right,” Sakey said.
Lee Clark, director of planning, zoning, and inspections, congratulated Invenergy on the quality of its presentation and the work done thus far.
To the landowners, Clark said “there is a certain amount of me that wants you to be able to do what you want with your property.” While he understands that many would financially benefit from the project, “there’s also the greater good of the county.”
Clark explained that because his job is to consider the appropriateness of a land use, not tax value, potential revenues for the county out of the discussion. He noted the county’s current ordinance calls for no more than 2.5 percent of the land area within a 5-mile
radius of a project to be used for solar farms.
“I get it. Solar energy, it’s here, and it’s the future, but Axton doesn’t need to be the epicenter of it either. Axton doesn’t need to be an area that’s known for being nothing but a solar farm now. As a planner, I understand that you can have too much of a good thing,” Clark said, and added that several concerns prompted him to not recommend approval of the zoning request.
The board voted unanimously to deny the special use permit.
During discussions of the request from Axton Solar, LLC, the quality and reputation of the company was questioned.
Even Sakey described the proposal as a “smash and grab project” that would have major viewshed issues for many.
The board voted unanimously to deny the permit for Axton Solar.
In other matters, the board:
*Approved a request from Carver Memorial Gardens for the expansion of the adjacent perpetual care cemetery.
*Approved a request from Abram Brim to operate a barber shop out of his home at 781 Southland Drive.
*Denied a request from Justin Stone to allow for a one-time use of his property at 5913 Daniels Creed Road for a cross country motorcycle competition.