Brenda Tate had an unpopular opinion — and she knew it.
But she had to voice it during a recent Bell County Commissioners Court meeting.
Tate and her husband, Randy, own a farm in rural Bell County near Troy. They are leasing some of their land to Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy and High Road Clean Energy of Austin. The companies are planning a $195-million, 3,000-acre solar farm in North Bell County — a project that has drawn outcry from many rural residents in recent months.
“I’m going to get shot standing in front of all these people that are against this — I am in favor of it,” Tate said, standing in a room with at least a dozen people, most who had spoken against the solar farm. “We are participating land-owners. This will be very life changing for us.”
Tate was one of more than 20 residents who spoke out during a public hearing last week. The commissioners, though, were not debating whether or not to approve the solar farm. The county government does not have any authority to do so.
Instead, the Commissioners Court considered designating a new reinvestment zone — which would be in four taxing entities, including the county, the Troy Independent School District, the Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District and the Elm Creek Watershed Authority — for Big Elm Solar.
The commissioners tabled the designation last week and plan to reconsider it at a later date.
The zone, if approved, would be the first step toward a tax abatement agreement — which has yet to be negotiated. The applicants have filed a tax abatement request.
“In order to move forward, we’re asking for the tax abatement because it’s important to the economics of the project,” said Monty Humble, the managing director of High Road Clean Energy.
The project is anticipated to begin building sometime in 2021 and is estimated to create up to 300 construction-related jobs. It should be operational in 2022.
“The completed project will result in approximately two to three full-time equivalent, permanent positions,” Bell County Judge David Blackburn said.
Humble expects the solar farm to bring a significant economic impact to Bell County and Troy ISD.
“As far as economic benefits go, I’d say the project — even with the proposed tax abatement — is expected to pay a little over $35 million in taxes to the school district and the county during the useful life of the project,” Humble said.
No toxic materials used in project
Some residents were unconvinced about the project.
Austin pediatrician Maya Killian’s family has owned a farm near the Big Elm Creek in North Bell County for more than three decades.
“Our big concern with this project is — although we have had notification that it’s going in — we haven’t really felt very informed about the hazards associated with solar farming,” she said. “It is obviously available on the internet and looking at different articles.”
Killian, citing her online research, described solar panels as not being manufactured in an environmentally friendly fashion, and she said they contain chemicals. That was a point brought up by several residents.
“When these panels get broken or damaged — which will happen in Central Texas because as we know we have incredibly bad weather at no notice — if those panels are damaged that stuff will leak into the soil and leak into our water supplies,” she said.
Big Elm Solar plans to use silica-based panels that contain no toxic materials.
“Obviously, nobody would invest $195 million in a project without properly insuring the project against storm damage,” Humble said. “If the project is damaged by a storm, there should be sufficient funds available to restore it or to dismantle it.”
Tate acknowledged some residents are concerned about the solar project. She would be too, she said — if she had not properly researched the idea.
“But when you look up the information on the internet you can pick and choose whatever information you want to use. If you want to be negative, you can look up all the negative information you can find and use that,” she said. “Take the advice of the experts when you listen to them and make your best choice is all I can say.”
Other residents expressed concern about potential storm runoff coming onto their properties.
But Bell County Commissioner Bill Schumann pointed out that many of their concerns — ranging from stormwater and erosion to getting a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — already are addressed by state law.
“There is legislation in place right now that keeps them and keeps you from … (doing) whatever that detrimentally affects your neighbor that’s illegal,” said Schumann, who represents Precinct 3 where the solar farm is expected to be constructed. “Again, the laws are on the books and they will have to conform with those laws — just like you do.”
Schumann plans to hold a town hall at some point in the future for residents to ask additional questions to the solar farm developers.
‘It will be their decision’
Commissioner Russell Schneider feels the North Bell County residents’ pain. Schneider lives on 35 acres and he has seen new houses pop up on the neighboring property.
“I don’t like to see that because I’m not used to seeing the houses there,” Schneider said. “I do know that I really have a hard time telling people what they can and can’t do with their own property that they purchased and they’ve been paying taxes on. If it makes sense for that person to sell it, to lease it or whatever — that should be their decision.”
Blackburn reminded residents the county government only has the authority to decide on the project’s tax abatement. Outside of that, they have no regulatory role to play, he said.
Blackburn — a former Temple Economic Development Corp. president — pointed out that many of the residents’ concerns could be addressed through the tax abatement negotiation process.
“If they withdraw their request for this, they can go out and build. They have the leases in hand and they’ll go out and construct the project — end of story,” the county judge said. “There is no county approval required because the county doesn’t zone. We don’t have any zoning authority. One of the reasons y’all and I live in the county is, as Mr. Schneider indicated, it gives me more freedom as a property owner to do what I want with my property.”
Blackburn stressed Big Elm Solar’s fate is ultimately in the hands of the developers. They can move forward on the project regardless of what the Commissioners Court says, he said.
“Does this financially help their project? Certainly it does. They wouldn’t be here and they wouldn’t be going through this process if it didn’t,” Blackburn said. “Can they move forward without it? That is a question they will have to decide. But in the end it will be their decision and not ours.”
The project will benefit the lives of at least one couple.
“I know this will be a wonderful thing for us to have,” Brenda Tate said. “Just last week, Randy fell off his hay baler and I kind of would like for him to be able to do something besides farming now. That would certainly help out a lot.”