Split vote stalls proposed solar project

Published 11:36 am Friday, July 28, 2023

Plans to move forward on a potentially multi-million-dollar solar project stalled Monday during a meeting of the Lowndes County Commissioners, when commissioners declined to approve a 20-year tax abatement request from the international energy producer developing the effort. The proposed project – a possible combination of three solar panel projects, two at 80 megawatts and one at 23 megawatts – would have yielded more than $11 million in tax revenue for Lowndes County Public Schools but was opposed by the commission in a 3-2 vote.

Thomas Ellis with the Lowndes County Economic Development Commission, a local group which sponsored the proposal, said the energy producer will not move forward with the first two project phases in Lowndes County at this time. The corporation’s leadership will consider whether it can reach an agreement with the commission which would bring phase three into the county and make room for the other two phases to possibly develop in the future.

“There is discussion about potentially bringing the last part to Lowndes County,” Ellis said. “The part of the project that was 80 megawatts and 23 megawatts is dead for Lowndes County as it existed [earlier]. Nothing will change on that part of the project but there is potential for something positive to happen on the other 80 megawatts. This is an extremely large company, able to do whatever they want to do. If Lowndes County could get the third part approved, my hope is that with the site developed, [the company] might circle back and bring the other parts back around. ”

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Commissioner Dickson Farrior, who voted in favor of issuing the tax abatement proposal that would have allowed the projects to move forward, said the operation would have been good for Lowndes County, especially the county’s schools.

“I think it’s a good project for the county,” Farrior said. “I think it would certainly have been good for the school board and we need to support education everywhere we can.”

Commissioners had expressed concerns over the past months of discussion, citing the lack of revenue the county would receive if the commission granted the abatement. The commission’s initial request that the company pay the county a stipend to offset abated taxes was rejected, as were suggestions for an abbreviated abatement period.”

“The status right now is disappointing,” Ellis said. “Our economic development team put a lot of work into it, but the policies of the company would not allow them to negotiate what the commissioners wanted.”

Ellis pointed out that other Alabama counties, like Walker County, recently agreed to 20-year tax abatements which brought industry to their areas and stimulated economic growth.

“Recently other counties have agreed to 20-year abatements and are bringing in economic activity and a lot of funds for their schools,” Ellis said. “Our school system is good but an input of capital like this project would yield is so significant. It gives schools the opportunity to enhance programs that help our children compete in a college and work environment.”

Commissioners Robert Harris and Charlie King Jr. voted against the abatement’s approval. Farrior and Commissioner Joseph Barganier supported the measure, but Commissioner Joshua Simmons approved issuing the abatement only with the stipulation that the corporations should conduct environmental testing for the project and repair any damage construction caused to the county’s roads. 

“We don’t know what environmental hazards solar panels will generate,” said Simmons. “They are planning the project in a wetland, so I asked for an environmental study every year. And we don’t want to be left with damaged roads due to construction related to the project.”

According to Ellis, he was not authorized to accept conditions during the meeting and had been tasked with gaining final approval to move forward. He is working to determine whether the corporation is willing to consider other terms toward an agreement.

“I’m disappointed that the project will not happen at this juncture,” Ellis said. “I am continuing to work on it, and we’ll see if it makes a difference.”

In other business the commission:

  • Heard a request from Lowndes County Sheriff Christ West, who asked for office space for the department’s investigators. The commission asked West to search for available space to meet the department’s needs;
  • Approved the contract for Avalon Consulting to work with the Lowndes County Unincorporated Wastewater Project;
  • Learned that Kenyetha and Lakeshia Bolling, who operate a transportation service in Montgomery County, hope to expand their services to Lowndes County.

 

The next regular meeting of the Lowndes County Commission will be held on Aug. 14 at 10 a.m.