Social distancing protocols meant attendees were spread out in the courtroom, the hallway, and in an overflow room across the street.
But that did not stop many of the attendees from presenting their objections to the solar farm. All but a couple of the 20 plus speakers were opposed to the creation of a reinvestment zone by the commissioners, the first step in the process of giving tax abatements to the project known as Big Elm Solar.
“This is all about the money that Clean Energy is promising the county and the school district,” said Robert Fleming, whose property would be affected by the solar farm. “It isn’t about right and wrong.”
Big Elm Solar is a joint project of High Road Clean Energy in Austin and Apex Energy from Virginia. The companies have about 3,000 acres under lease in Bell County, and solar panels will be placed on about 1,400 of those acres. The companies are seeking millions of dollars of property tax reductions from Bell County and Troy ISD.
“We have put over a year of work into this project,” Monty Humble, managing director of High Road, told the commissioners. “It will be about a $195 million investment in the community.”
Though the project has been underway for some time, many residents only learned of it recently.
“What concerns me and my wife is the misinformation. We were notified only thirteen days ago,” said Mark Wolf. “I’m a cancer survivor and have a heart condition. We are going to be surrounded on three sides by solar panels. What is this going to do to us, our community, our neighbors?”
County Commissioner Bill Schumann, whose Precinct 3 is where Big Elm Solar will be built, pointed out to the audience that the commissioners went far beyond state law requirements in notifying nearby residents.
Brian Reynolds, whose mother will be surrounded on three sides by solar panels, also had concerns about the process.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” said Reynolds. “There are a lot of things being done and decisions being made haphazardly.”
Big Elm Solar is just one of a number of renewable energy projects being developed in Texas. Humble said his company is working on seven projects right now, and Apex is developing or constructing four wind farms and two solar farms.
Property tax limitations for solar and wind farms fall under two state programs. Counties and cities are able to offer abatements under Chapter 312 of the Tax Code, while tax limitation agreements with school districts are made under Chapter 313.
Chapter 312 agreements are agreed to locally, but 313 agreements must go through a vetting process at the state comptroller’s office before school districts can finalize them. Currently, there are 111 pending applications from districts at the comptroller’s office.
Before 312 and 313 agreements can be made, a local government must set up a tax reinvestment zone containing the property under the agreements. That was what was being debated at the commissioners court in Belton on Monday.
After the public hearing, the county judge and commissioners discussed their thoughts and concerns associated with the project.
One issue discussed was private property rights. Two commissioners, Schumann and Russell Schneider, noted that landowners ought to be able to do generally whatever they want to do with their property, including constructing a solar farm.
“I was interested in the number of people there that were associated with the Farm Bureau because I’ve got a copy of the Texas Farm Bureau’s legislative agenda and one of them is to protect private property rights and another one is to oppose undue governmental regulation of rural property,” said Schumann after the meeting.
Most of those who spoke out against the solar farm seemed to agree with that sentiment. Their interest was largely not in controlling land use but in stopping the abatements.
“I don’t have an issue with the other landowners,” said Reynolds. “The people that are doing this may be having issues, perhaps they don’t want to farm forever or they don’t have people in their family to take over. I get it.
“I have concerns about the tax abatement,” he continued. “A lot of the money the developers get to do this comes from federal subsidies, so I’m already paying an abatement there. Now I’m being asked to do it on the county level as well. If they want to be a part of the community they should pay the same taxes everyone else is paying.”
From 2010 through 2019, federal subsidies for renewables totaled $71.2 billion, compared to $25 billion for oil and gas, $15.4 billion for nuclear, and $12.8 billion for coal.
Schumann noted that if the solar farms get the abatements, they would not be the only ones in the county getting tax breaks.
“The question of tax abatements is a discussion that far surpasses just the solar farm,” he said. “I mean, everybody in that room that is in commercial agriculture is the beneficiary of huge subsidies. The whole ag valuation of property is a subsidy.”
After the court’s discussion, Schumann moved to table action on the reinvestment zone. But that does not mean the end of the discussion.
Paul Kruger, a resident who attended the meeting, thought the move was made to give the project more time.
“I believe considering that 98 percent of all the people that responded publicly were against it, tabling it was the most politically expedient thing to do,” he said.
Schumann indicated he thought the commissioners court would eventually approve the abatement for Big Elm Solar.
“I think we probably will,” he said. “When you go back and look at the questions that were raised and the available science that we have, there is nothing that’s being done that is documented to be detrimental to anybody.”
Recently, the Board of Trustees of Ganado ISD in Jackson County has come to a different conclusion on abatements.
At its December 18 meeting, the board declined to approve the request by Ganado Solar LLC for a 313 property tax limitation agreement. The agreement would have reduced the taxable value of the project from $113 million to $30 million the first year. A proposed 312 agreement with Jackson County would have saved the company $225,000 annually.
More recently, on March 11 the Ganado ISD board again declined to enter into a 313 agreement for three solar farms proposed by Savion, a renewable energy development company headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri with 124 existing projects in 25 states.
In its 313 applications, Savion wrote, “In the event a 313 agreement is not permitted Savion, LLC will reallocate the capital for this project to establish a facility in another location more financially viable.”
Humble said he is uncertain what High Plains and Apex Energy would do if the county or school board does not approve agreements for Big Elm Solar. “We do not have a plan for what we would do in that case,” he said.
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Bill Peacock is a writer and public policy consultant in Austin, TX. He has extensive experience in Texas government and policy on a variety of issues, including economic regulation, energy, taxes and budgets, property rights, and corporate welfare. His work has focused on identifying and reducing the harmful effects of regulations on the economy, businesses, and consumers.