Commissioners hear opposition to solar projects at public hearings

Editor: Shannon Cottongame

May 18, 2023

The Hill County Commissioners Court approved reinvestment zones for three solar projects at a meeting held Tuesday, May 9, but the votes were not unanimous after the court heard from landowners who oppose the projects.

Designating land in a project area as a reinvestment zone is a step that must be taken before the county can consider entering into a tax abatement agreement with a company. The court’s action Tuesday did not finalize any abatement agreements, which will be considered at a later meeting.

Reinvestment zones that were the subject of the public hearings included the Ash Creek Solar project involving about 2,800 acres near Penelope, the Gransolar Texas Ten project including 526 acres southeast of Hubbard and the Midpoint Solar project on about 648 acres located between Blum and Covington.

Ash Creek Solar obtained a Chapter 313 agreement with Penelope Independent School District (ISD) for its proposed project, which involves a capital investment of about $477 million in the county. This particular project drew a crowd to the meeting, with several speakers encouraging the court to avoid moving forward with a tax abatement.

A representative from Ash Creek Solar addressed the court and attendees during the public hearing and said that he had represented several projects and pointed out some of the benefits. With 2023 appraisal notices out, he said that Sun Valley Solar is now on the tax rolls for $250 million, BT Files Solar is included at $150 million and Hubbard Wind is listed at $140 million. “That’s more than half a billion created by three projects,” he said. “This project would double that number to over a billion.”

He said that Hill County has reduced its tax rate by 15% during the same time period, and the projects are responsible for moving some of the tax burden from individuals to industry.

“With this proposal, within the first year alone, even with the abatement, taxes to the county would be a million,” he said. “That’s a 6% increase over the current county tax collections.”

County Judge Justin Lewis restated his opinion, which he has provided in the past as the court considers the abatement agreements. He maintains that the deals are done once school districts enter into tax abatement agreements with the companies, and the county, which only represents a small percentage of a company’s overall tax bill, must then take steps to protect its roads by entering into contractual agreements with the solar companies.

“Getting that road use agreement is my main concern,” Lewis said. “I don’t think we had an understanding of how bad things could be until we saw the first project. (Our roads) weren’t designed for 200 vehicles going to a site, back and forth, for 12 months.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Jim Holcomb said that the companies should have to upgrade roads to meet the needs of their construction process. “I think the road use agreement should have some significant teeth in it to force the issue,” Holcomb said. “If they don’t do it, we have access to the funds to do it.”

Lewis agreed, but said that the only way this can be enforced is for the county to enter into a tax abatement agreement and give the companies a reason to come to the table and create a contract.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Larry Crumpton said that he has always been against giving any kind of abatement to wind or solar but wants to protect county roads. He asked if there was another way to do that.

Lewis said that he wanted to clear up a misunderstanding that the county has any regulatory authority over the solar projects. While residents have sent him statutes that they believe provide this authority, the judge said that he has read them all and sought opinions from inside and outside attorneys and still cannot find any statutory authority for regulation in unincorporated areas of the county.

He pointed out that the county has continued to lower the rate of tax abatements offered to energy projects with the goal of providing just enough incentive to get them to the table to sign road agreements. Currently, the county offers a 10-year abatement that averages out to about 32%.

Jeff Nors, who lives on a family farm near Penelope, said the Ash Creek proposal is a bad deal that will only create two permanent jobs. “Chapter 313 and these associated tax breaks were meant to bring companies to Texas that would not otherwise come here and to create jobs,” he said. “This does neither.” He said that the solar companies are coming anyway, and it’s unnecessary to incentivize their development.”No other businesses in Hill County get this deal, and many of them generate a heck of a lot more than two jobs,” he said.
He said that he believes Penelope ISD rushed through a bad deal. “This is tearing the community apart, make no bones about it,” he said.

Woody Root, another Penelope resident, said that over 200 residents and landowners had signed a petition against the issue when it went before the school board.

Johnny Hanzlicek said that he grew up in Penelope and moved back to his home place after retirement. “I was approached by Ash Creek several times and declined each time,” he said. “I’m a few hundred feet away if this goes through.” He told the court that he is totally against the project, citing mainly public safety concerns and training for volunteer fire departments.

Abbott resident John Blaha said that solar projects have been stopped in the past by declining tax abatements, and he encouraged the court to wait and see what action the Texas Legislature takes in regards to renewable energy this session. “Solar projects do devalue land in close proximity to them,” Blaha said. “They are destroying what has sustained and nurtured us for generations.”

Todd Kimbrell said that he is a fifth-generation Hill County farmer whose ancestors settled here due to the fertile soil. “Just to cover it up in solar is hard to watch,” he said. He encouraged the court to think about the farming community.

Judge Lewis also read two letters from Penelope-area residents who could not attend the meeting. Both Joseph Nors and Joann Nors also asked the court to vote against the reinvestment zone citing impacts to neighboring property.

After the public hearing on the Ash Creek reinvestment zone was closed, Precinct 4 Commissioner Martin Lake made a motion to approve the reinvestment zone, but there was initially no second to the motion, and the court continued discussing the need for a road agreement. “If you don’t approve it, you’re going to have a messed up road that’s going to cost you a fortune,” Lake told his fellow commissioners.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Scotty Hawkins questioned the usefulness of a road agreement, saying that in his precinct a road that was not included in the agreement was used by a company and damage was caused. Lewis thanked Hawkins for bringing that to his attention and said that there is enforcement action available in the agreement that will allow the county to recover money for the road.

After discussion, Crumpton seconded the motion to approve the Ash Creek reinvestment zone, but pointed out that he was only doing it for the road use agreement. Lewis agreed, adding, “Our only goal is to protect the citizens the best we can from this.” He said that based on comments from the public, additional requirements about property setbacks and vegetative screening will also be included in agreements to protect neighboring landowners as much as possible.

The motion passed with Lake and Crumpton in favor, Holcomb and Hawkins opposed, and Lewis breaking the tie in favor.

The next vote was to approve the form of the tax abatement agreement. This action did not grant the company a tax abatement, but approves the general outline of a form that will be adjusted and voted on in the future. The motion passed four to one, with Holcomb voting against the motion.

There were no comments from the public specifically regarding Gransolar Texas Ten and Midpoint Solar during the public hearings, but discussion continued about the overall issue.

“My comment stays the same,” Lewis said. “They will go down a bunch of county roads. We’re not looking to lure them here and didn’t ask them to come here, but once a school district signs a 313 and it’s approved, they’re coming.”

Lewis said that the court was in an unenviable position and had to make a decision to protect the entirety of the county and the county roads. “I hope that everybody here, agree or disagree, thinks that we’ve at least been transparent about this process in our reasoning and in our notice,” he said.

He encouraged the crowd to speak, saying that he understood the conversations were uncomfortable but that they are necessary. “Whether we agree or not, we’re still going to see each other at Walmart, at church, wherever, and it’s all about having open discussions about what we’re looking at and what’s going on,” the judge said.

Hill County Emergency Management Coordinator Tom Hemrick addressed one of the concerns that has been raised regarding training for fire departments that may have to respond to fires near solar project equipment. He said that the companies have indicated that they are very open to working with fire departments, but the guidance is similar to some other businesses in the county where the protocol is to avoid the area. “Basically, they don’t want the fire departments in there,” he said. He also explained that the battery boxes have built-in fire suppression systems.

The reinvestment zone proposals for Gransolar, which plans a capital investment of $119 million, and Midpoint Solar, planning a capital investment of over $157 million, each passed by four to one votes, with Commissioner Holcomb not in favor each time.

The proposed form of the abatements were passed unanimously by the court after each reinvestment zone vote.

Moving on to other agenda items, the court held a public hearing on setting a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour on HCR 2210 near Aquilla. There were no comments, and posting the speed limit was approved.

A required public hearing was also held on placing a stop sign at the intersection of HCR 2210 and HCR 2207 near Aquilla. There were no comments, and the stop sign was approved.

A public hearing was also held to post a maximum speed limit of 35 miles per hour on HCR 2200 near Aquilla, from the intersection of HCR 2200 and FM 1304 to 3,996 feet south. Crumpton said that this speed limit is too high for the road, but Lewis said that the Texas Transportation Code does not allow the county to set a limit lower than 35. There were no comments, and the court approved posting the speed limit.

Commissioners approved appointing Wendy Anderson and Robbie Dement to the Hill County Child Protective Services Board, and Lewis thanked the board for its continued service to the children of Hill County.

Several contracts and interagency agreements were approved for the Hill County Juvenile Probation Department. The department contracts with outside facilities to help it locate placement options for juvenile offenders.

A variance to the county’s subdivision rules and regulations was approved for Lake Life Villas, to be located at the end of FM 2604 on Lake Whitney. The current rules require lots to be one acre, mainly to provide room for septic, but this development will have a municipal septic service operated by HILCO.

A preliminary plat was approved for Pistol Pete Estates, involving about 18 lots off of State Highway 171. The subdivision has received permits from the Texas Department of Transportation and includes no access from county roads.

A final plat was approved for the Mayspring Subdivision, involving five lots of about 1.9 acres each off of HCR 1313.

A minor plat was also approved for a single lot on HCR 2348 and HCR 3111W.

The court approved declaring two Glock model 45s as surplus property for the sheriff’s office. The move is customary when longtime employees leave the sheriff’s office and their firearms are given to them as gifts. In a related discussion at the meeting, Assistant County Attorney Michaela Alvarado spoke as a citizen during open forum and said that she wanted to thank Captain Justin Motherspau, one of the departing employees. “He has been a wonderful colleague and one of the most reliable and trustworthy people I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” she said.

The purchase of a six-year-old narcotic detection canine and equipment from the Bosque County Sheriff’s Office was approved for the sheriff’s office at a cost of $2,000. Chief Deputy Scott Robinson presented information stating that the sheriff’s office recently hired Deputy Ty Hardy, who was the canine’s handler at the Bosque County Sheriff’s Office. The Bosque County sheriff contacted Sheriff Rodney Watson and offered to sell the dog to Hill County.

Robinson said that the sheriff’s office has the funds to purchase the dog in its budget but was requesting the court’s authorization in the interest of transparency.

The court voted in favor of the purchase, but Judge Lewis went on record as voting against the motion, saying that the dogs have been a problem for the county in the past.

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