Solar panel, photovoltaic, alternative electricity source - concept of sustainable resources

As 10:00 a.m. neared closer on Monday morning on July 19 the Comanche County Commissioners’ Court grew larger as the public hearing portion was set to begin.

     The crowd quadrupled in size as people were concerned about the projected solar plant wanting to come into Comanche County. That crowd grew from around 5 people to over 20 when the public hearing began. The people that signed up to speak were mainly neighboring landowners of the solar project that was proposed near the southeast corner of Comanche County near Lamkin.

    The main concern of the public speakers was the destruction of the natural habitat of that area of the county and concern of the movement of wild animals from the area.

     Another main concern were the roads in this area. The neighbors spoke of how hard it was for the Precinct 2 Commissioner to maintain these roads and that he, Sherman Sides was doing the best he could. These neighbors did not think the roads would hold up during the construction phase of the project

     The representatives present for the solar project, Core Solar claimed that there would be no major destruction of the habitat or wildlife.

     Also, Randy Jenkins and Julius Horvath with Core Solar said that with a road agreement they would fix any damage to the roads cause by the construction of the solar project.

     As far as the wildlife, they claimed the only deterrent to the wildlife would be the 8 to 6 foot fences that would be built around the solar plant. And that after 35 years when the solar panels would be picked up and recycled, a reseeding process would take place after that. The reseeding would be beneficial and attract pollinators.

     Another key aspect of the project is the tax abatements. For this project, the proposed abatements with Comanche Solar LLC and Comanche County would be a chapter 312 abatement. The other abatement agreement would be between Comanche Solar LLC and the Hamilton ISD, a chapter 313 tax abatement. Since the project encompasses the Hamilton ISD, Comanche ISD would not be part of the abatement.

     Bob Bass from Allison, Bass and Magee, LLP who has been hired by Comanche County as outside counsel to help with the solar project and the Volleman Dairy Abatement, was very beneficial and knowledgeable with the tax abatement questions.

     Mark Willingham, a lawyer and whose family owns land that borders three sides of the proposed solar plant claimed that the abatement would be most beneficial to the landowner, James Shelton whose land encompasses the entire project and the solar plant investors.

      Bob Bass said that the proposed solar project over 10 years would make Comanche County 1.2 million dollars. The payments would be around $100,200 a year for the county.

      After Core Solar made their opening statements and the public hearing speakers voiced their opinion. And after Comanche County Judge, Stephanie Davis asked several good questions to Core Solar it was time for the commissioners to make a motion to create a reinvestment zone in Comanche County to be known as Comanche County Reinvestment Zone No.1-Comanche Solar for purposes of a tax abatement.

      Sherman Sides, Commissioner Precinct 2, which this project encompasses was the first to speak. And he said he was against it.

      Next Judge Davis asked the commissioners if anyone wanted to make a motion to bring the solar project reinvestment zone to a vote.                   She asked each of the commissioners one by one and each declined to make a motion.

      So no vote was taken to create a reinvestment zone for the Comanche Solar Llc. Thus, no vote was taken on a tax abatement.

      This does not mean that Core Soar cannot still create the solar plant at the proposed location, it just means that Comanche County will not receive a tax abatement from the project.

      Bob Bass said another entity could create the reinvestment zone like Hamilton ISD but that would be unlikely. He did add that it has happened before.

      Core Solar, a Texas company has done several projects in Texas and is in the beginning stages of another project here in Comanche County.

      Before the public hearing the commissioners court meeting kicked off around 9:00 a.m. with only 4 public members in attendance, excluding media and invited speakers.

      After the invocation lead by commissioner Jimmy Dale Johnson, the approval of last meetings and general public comment, which there was none, Bob Bass started the consultation process about the Volleman Dairy Processing Land , L.P. tax abatement.

      There just needed to be a modification on the original tax abatement agreement. It was a simple modification since Volleman Dairy separated into two entities, one encompassing the land and one encompassing the equipment.

      Then the meeting was open to a public hearing for the Volleman tax abatement. No speakers signed up for this public hearing portion.

      After a motion was made to combine both entities into the original abatement, the commissioners unanimously voted for it.

      The judge thanked Frank Volleman and Volleman Dairy for their support of the county especially during the winter apocalypse when the Volleman Dairy donated milk to nursing homes who were out and could not access milk anywhere else.

      Before the public hearing on the solar project Bob Bass consulted with the court in open, no closed session was needed.

      Mr. Bass first stated that to vote on a tax abatement, a reinvestment zone had to be created. The reinvestment zone that was to be motioned was Comanche County Reinvestment Zone No. 1 Comanche Solar.

      Mr. Bass also pointed out that a solar project did start in Brown County without a reinvestment zone. This is also where Mr. Bass first stated that a school district or other entity could create a reinvestment zone. Other entities that could create a reinvestment zone in Comanche County include hospital districts and water districts.

      During this consultation Comanche County Judge Stephanie Davis asked a series of pertinent questions to Mr. Bass.

      One questions about the project included the roads. Mr. Bass stated without an abatement the county would be liable for road damage but that an abatement would cover road damage caused by the project.

       Mr. Bass also stated that solar projects were not as damaging as wind projects because the solar panels do not weigh as much. He went onto to say that a road use agreement with the solar company would be beneficial to the county. The county could use a bond to pay for the road damage then the solar company would reimburse the county.

     The Comanche County Attorney, Craig Willingham stated that with no abatement that the solar company would be taxed at 100%. Then Jimmy Dale Johnson, commissioner of precinct 4 stated that the county needs more tax money, more more.

      Mr. Bass went onto to say that Pilot Program Tax Abatements are now the vehicle of chose for county’s seeking abatements. These programs make payments directly to the county during a 10 year abatement.

      These pilot programs are also referred as payment in lieu of tax incentive programs and abates property taxes on a sliding scale, typically over a ten year period.

     At the end of the consultation Mr. Bass stated that Brown County did receive a solar panel plant without an abatement but that was a rare occurrence.

      The next item on the agenda also involved Mr. Bass and it involved redistricting voting areas in the county.

        Mr. Bass stated that one of the most important criteria was the weight of the votes in each precinct. He used Avery vs. Midland County from 1967 has an example.

     In this case Mr. Hank Avery, the petitioner here and the plaintiff below, appeared before the county commissioners court of Midland County and pointed out to the Court at this time the disparity of population between the commissioner’s precincts and the county.

       Mr. Avery pointed out that commissioner’s precinct won of which he was a resident, contained over 95% of the population of Midland County and elected only one member to the Commissioners Court.

       That commissioners precincts numbers two, three, and four, contained less than 5% of the population of the county, and elected three members of the commissioners court.

      And therefore, he did not have — the citizen did not have an equal voice in the Government, governing body of Midland County, and asked that county be redistributed in accordance with the population.

      His request was denied.

      In 1963, Mr. Avery filed a lawsuit in Midland County, Texas against the Commissioners Court to require the entry to District Midland County in accordance with substantial numerical quantity.

        After this lawsuit was filed, the Commissioners Court held what they designate as public hearings in an attempt to resolve this issue and Mr. Avery appeared at these public hearings and presented a plan to the Commissioners Court whereby the county could be divided so that it would be equal in population.

      Substantially equal insofar as miles of county roads, areas, taxable values, and so forth. This information came from Lawaspect.com

      Mr. Bass went on to say that the precincts must be numerically equal according to the Voting Rights of 1972 in Texas. And that the Federal Government gets their population data from the Census.

       This year there has been a lengthy delay in getting the Census data back and it will not be ready until September 30. This along with the legislative mess right now in Texas with the Democrats fleeing the state will probably push back the redistricting and thus the voting dates as well.

      He also stated that minorities also played a role in redistricting. He used Shaw vs. Reno in a North Carolina case from 1993 as an example.

       In this case the question was did the North Carolina residents' claim, that the State created a racially gerrymandered district, raise a valid constitutional issue under the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause?

       The Court held that although North Carolina's reapportionment plan was racially neutral on its face, the resulting district shape was bizarre enough to suggest that it constituted an effort to separate voters into different districts based on race. The unusual district, while perhaps created by noble intentions, seemed to exceed what was reasonably necessary to avoid racial imbalances. After concluding that the residents' claim did give rise to an equal protection challenge, the Court remanded - adding that in the absence of contradictory evidence, the District Court would have to decide whether or not some compelling governmental interest justified North Carolina's plan. This information came from www.oyez.org.

      Mr. Bass said that the minorities as a criterion for redistricting was a grey area and that the Federal Government has gone back and forth on this area.

      He also suggested that the county should preserve the current polling locations and that if voting lines do move keep them as close as possible to the current lines. Then he said, “people vote not roads”. And that keeping things as close as possible will help keep the voting ballots in the same style at each polling location.

     Another suggestion Mr. Bass made was for the county to install a public committee to help with the redistricting and come up with new ideas.

    Judge Davis reiterated that they were hiring Bob Bass’s law firm to handle the redistricting boundaries to help the county.

      At the end of the discussion all the commissioners voted an order establishing criteria for redistricting political boundaries.

       This was the last item discussed before the public hearing on the tax abatements began.

The solar panel plant public hearing was described in length above and the Volleman Dairy public hearing was short and sweet.

No speakers signed up for this public hearing portion.

After a motion was made to combine both entities into the original abatement, the commissioners unanimously voted for it.

    Frank Volleman thanked the court for their work and help with the county.

      The judge thanked Frank Volleman for his support of the county especially during the winter apocalypse when the Volleman Dairy donated milk to nursing home who were out and could not access milk anywhere else.

        After the public hearing which ended a little after 1:00 p.m., Judge Davis briefly went over the other items on the agenda before taking a one-hour lunch break. Also, the Comanche County Emergency Management department stated that the burn ban was still off due to the most recent weather conditions. So, county residence can still burn within certain areas legally.

        The court reconvened at 2:30 p.m. to go over the budget workshop with the tax assessor/ collector, justice of peace, district clerk, sheriff/ jail operations, De Leon Library and the Comanche Library.

       Core Solar representatives spoke before the public hearing and were made available for questions from the speakers that signed up.

      Before Randy Jenkins, Vice President of Core Solar got up to speak, Bob Bass stated that the Comanche County Reinvestment Zone was 100-megawatt project. And that many solar companies are coming to Texas, and we will see more of them in the future.

        Mr. Jenkins first stated that the Comanche County Reinvestment Zone No. 1- Comanche Solar would encompass 1,027 acres and that they had been working on this area for 6 months.  The owner of JKS Cattle and Land, LLC is James Shelton, and he is the only landowner directly involved in this reinvestment zone. This area is near the southeast corner of Comanche County near Lamkin and is very close to the Hamilton County line and that it is in the ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) North Zone. And that this was an easy connection location for ERCOT. He went onto to say that Core Solar are partners with Energy Renewable Partners and that they follow the Federal guidelines.

      He said that solar panel plants are a new business, and it is moving quickly. And that they are here in Comanche County seeking a reinvestment zone so that a 312-tax abatement can be accessed. Then they will seek a chapter 313 tax abatement with Hamilton ISD and that could take 6 months. Also, right from the start of the project Core Solar will receive a 26% Federal Tax Credit.

       He then went over the basic component of a solar panel which include silicon solar cells, metal frame (typically aluminum), glass sheet for casing, standard 12V wire, bus wire, and Plexiglas. Core Solar also stated that panels are constantly evolving and getting more effective.

    Mr. Jenkins also stated that Core Solar will probably not be the sole owner of the plant, that companies like Google and Amazon like to but these plants. Many Comanche County residence now that Wal Mart was the first primary buyer of the electricity from Logan’s Gap Wind Farm. But Mr. Jenkins reiterated that Core Solar would like to retain a portion of the plant I would probably not sell the entire plant.

        Next, he stated that people living closer to solar plants had 5% more energy than others. And that during the winter apocalypse that wind and solar energy performed better than other forms of electricity.

        Last he stated the Core Solar would enter a road use agreement and that they would improve the roads prior to construction.

        The Comanche County Judge, Stephanie Davis asked Core Solar what counties in Texas have they operated in. Julius Horvarth, Senior Director with Core Solar said they have been in Andrews, Brazoria, a 400-megawatt plant in Hill and a 650-megawatt plant in Kent County. Also, they are in the beginning phase of another project in Comanche County.

       Then the judge asked about the economic impact on the county.

      Mr. Jenkins stated that Core Solar will hire 8-10 permanent local people and during the 12-month construction phase over 100 temporary workers.

      Judge Davis next asked how the plant would affect the outlining land.

        Mr. Jenkins said that the equipment would be away from the fenced boundaries and no impacts on neighboring land.

        Next one of the commissioners asked if Core Solar could build the plant without the reinvestment zone and abatement. Core Solar responded with a yes but that it would be hard to do without them.

        Mr. Bass. went on to state just because there is an reinvestment zone and an abatement in place, doesn’t mean that the project will go through. There are many hoops to go through before the construction takes place. He said that about 60% of the green energy projects make it to completion. And that green energy is cheaper and being sought after more.

      Commissioner Johnson asked about the owner of Core Solar. The owner is Greg Nelson of Austin who has 25 years of experience energy project consulting and is a board member of Energy Renewal Partners. Also Core Solar is a Texas Company.

      After the spill form Core Solar, the real public hearing was set to begin. Around 12 concerned citizens signed up to speak. Each speaker was given 5 minutes.

       First was Brad Long a county resident who was questioned Core Solar hiring practices here in the county and if the solar panels were cheap.

        Mr. Jenkins reiterated the 8 to 10 permanent local employees to be hired and that the panels are constantly evolving and getting better.

Next to speak was Lauri Hudson, a county resident, and a neighbor of the solar plant. She asked who the likely buyer of the project would be once Core Solar got it started.

       Mr. Jenkins stated that it would probably be another Texas green energy company and that Core Solar would like to retain some ownership of the project.

       Ms. Hudson then asked how long the abatement would last. Jenkins replied 10 years. Next Ms. Hudson asked about the impact on animals. Mr. Jenkins stated that there would be a light impact because of the 6 to 8 foot fences.

       Then Ms. Hudson asked about EMF emissions known as electromagnetic radiation, that may cause cancer. Mr. Jenkins stated that solar panels do not emit EMF’s.

      She also asked how long the solar plant would be in operation. Mr. Jenkins stated about 35 years and then after that time is up, they will come and pick the panels and recycle them for future projects and equipment.

      Last Ms. Hudson asked how the solar plants behaved during the recent winter storm. Mr. Jenkins stated that the solar plants did not fail and gained 5% more use during the storm. And that wind and solar energy outperformed other energy uses during Winter Storm Uri.

      Next to speak was Deidre Daniel Been, a county resident who lives near the solar plant. Her main concern was the effect on property value and wildlife. Mr. Jenkins said that it would have no impact to land values.

      Ms. Been did not believe this and stated how beautiful this area was and that a solar plant would damage the beauty and wildlife of that area.

      The Glen Hodges another neighboring county resident to the proposed solar plant also spoke of de-beautifying the land and had concerns about the roads. He also spoke of a conversation he had with Pete McDougal, a board member of the Comanche Electric Co-op. The co-op has a small area of solar panels and Mr. McDougal told Mr. Hodges the main problem was trying to control the weeds growing up over the solar panels. He ended his talk with a little history on Abe Lincoln. He said when Mr. Lincoln had a dilemma he would write on two separate sheets of paper, one said for and the other said against. Which ever tallied the more votes either “For” or “Against” would help him make his decisions. Mr. Hodges suggest that the court do this.

        Next Mr. Kenneth Braim, of the Gustine ISD Board stated that with no tax abatement there would not be a solar plant in that reinvestment zone. And that lithium batteries would be a problem at the solar plant and what about that 26% Federal money.

       Mr. Jenkins. stated that they will not use lithium batteries and that they do not receive federal money, it is a 26% investment tax credit.

        Then Craig Willingham, Comanche County Attorney, and landowner adjacent to the proposed solar plant stepped up to the mic. He stated that this plant will affect the value of hunting and wildlife in this reinvestment zone area. He talked about the abundance of wild quail they have started to see on their land and that this solar plant will negatively affect their land value. He went on to say this won’t bring many jobs are economic activity to the county. That most of the economic impact would benefit Hamilton County more.

            Another county resident made her to the podium, that being Ms. Mary Drexler. Her main concern was the roads as well. Then she asked if there would be a time limit on the project. And Mr. Jenkins answered her yes, it would be one year. Then Ms. Drexler asked if there was a way to counter the destruction of the land from the solar plant construction. Mr. Jenkins told her that after they clean up the solar panels that they will reseed the area with habitation suited for pollinators. Ms. Drexler ended her time by stating that the solar plant will still destroy that natural habitat, that it would not be like it was before.

    Next another adjoining neighbor stepped to the microphone, Mr. Ron Grey. He was concerned about the fences around the solar plant. And Mr. Jenkins stated that the fences would probably be 6 foot between the neighboring properties and 8 feet along the roads.

    Then Mr. Grey asked if the Brazos Electric district would come on his land to connect the wires. Mr. Jenkins said that they would not have to enter your property. Mr. Grey also had concerns about water runoff from the solar plant because his county road was susceptible to washing out.

    He then thanked the court and ended his time with a marriage joke that got a little chuckle from most people in attendance.

    Then another Willingham landowner made his way to the podium. David Willingham was concerned about the wildlife, especially the wild quail which are again making a comeback. He was concerned that the fences would alter their migration. Mr. Willingham also stated that the abatement helps the landowner and the investors more than anybody else. And the neighboring landowners are the losers in the project. He ended his time by thanking his commissioner Sherman Sides.

     The last speaker of the public hearing was Mark Willingham, a lawyer and relative of the previous Willingham’s that spoke earlier.

    Mark Willingham stated that the agriculture industry in this area would be a loser of this solar plant project. And that Core Solar would not really hire locally, there are ways around this he stated.

    Mark Willingham questioned what studies were done that state no harm to wildlife.

    Core Solar responded with the endangered species protection act. That got a little chuckle from the crowd because there are not many endangered species on that land if at all. Then Mark mentioned the monarch butterflies and Mr. Jenkins stated the solar plant would have no impact on butterflies.

    Mr. Willingham then questioned the studies that solar panels do not catch fire and he listed a few examples where some areas did when birds landed on them.

    Core Solar answered this by stating that it was not the solar panels but that the birds landed on open conductors and that is what caused the spark and fires to start.

    Mr. Willingham also mentioned that because of the chemical from these solar plant fires that it was a huge burden on volunteer firefighters and that it took them a long time to put them out if at all.

    With Mark Willingham being the last speaker Core Solar representatives thanked the court. Then Judge Davis asked for any more questions from the court before going to the commissioners’ vote.

    Jon Awbrey stated that the county could turn into an economic colonization. Then Grace Everhart made the point that James Shelton, JKS Land and Cattle bought this land in 2018.

    Mr. Sides commissioner of Precinct 2 stated he was against the project because it did not benefit a county school district and he wanted to protect the landowners and the county roads, especially the road that was going to a new subdivision off CR 286.

    Judge Davis mentioned that it was an opportunity to increase our county tax base. But that it was also equally important to think of our county landowners.

    Mr. Bass made the point that the solar plant would bring $1.8 million to the county. A little over $100,000 for the next 10 years.

    But it seemed like the commissioners had already made up their minds and not one of them made a motion to bring the reinvestment zone to a vote. So, no reinvestment zone meant no vote for a tax abatement as well.

    Comanche County Judge Stephanie Davis thanked the Core Solar representatives for their time and still made the point to the court that they can still construct the solar plant on that location in Comanche County.

    With that issue closed the meeting was basically adjourned for the day.

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