Walton meeting on Gulf Power solar facility postponed

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — A specially called Thursday meeting for which Walton County commissioners appeared to be set to ratify their narrow denial of a development order for a Gulf Power solar facility was postponed because of what one commissioner called "health issues that unexpectedly arose among county personnel."

The commission now will consider the development order during its regularly scheduled meeting at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the commission meeting room in the county courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.

A Wednesday afternoon email from Louis Svehla, the county's public information manager, said the postponement was because of "unforeseen circumstances." Svelha could not say Wednesday what "unforeseen circumstances" prompted the postponement.

More:Walton County rejects 900-acre Gulf Power solar energy facility

However, on the day before the postponement was announced, Commissioner Tony Anderson said during an interview about the fate of the Gulf Power proposal that the meeting likely was to be rescheduled. He speculated that the postponement might be because of issues among some county staff with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In the last week of 2020, the number of positive COVID-19 tests reported by county staff members prompted a two-and-a-half day closure of some county offices. The closure came immediately before the Jan. 1 New Year's Day holiday, which allowed for an additional day of office closures. 

In a 3-2 Tuesday vote, Walton County commissioners rejected Gulf Power plans for a solar electricity generation facility in the northern part of the county.  In a Wednesday statement, Gulf Power said that while the company is disappointed in the county's decision, it will continue to look for opportunities to develop solar electricity generation capacity in Northwest Florida.

As of Thursday afternoon, Anderson and Danny Glidewell were the only two of the county's five commissioners to respond to emails, phone calls and text messages seeking comment on the fate of the project and the postponement.

Gulf Power was notified of the postponement but was not given a reason for the decision to reschedule the meeting for Tuesday, Sarah Gatewood, a spokeswoman for the utility, said Thursday.

In a 3-2 vote Dec. 22, commissioners denied a development order for the Chautauqua Solar Energy Center, planned for 868 acres between and around Harrison Road and Brown Road, three miles east of U.S. Highway 331 at State Road 2A.

Solar panels line a hillside on the Eglin Air Force Base reservation in Okaloosa County, where Gulf Power has established a solar electric power generation facility. The utility has proposed another solar facility for northern Walton County, but county commissioners last month denied a development order that  would have cleared the way for that project. Commissioners had been set to apparently ratify that decision on Thursday, but a meeting scheduled for that purpose has been postponed to Jan. 12 as a result of what the county is calling "unforeseen circumstances."

The meeting to ratify that decision is necessary to allow for a vote on a completed development order based on input from the Dec. 22 meeting.

Voting to deny the development order Dec. 22 were Glidewell and newly elected Commissioners Mike Barker and William McCormick, who took their seats in November. Anderson and Commission Chairman Trey Nick voted in favor of the development order.

The decision came after an almost four-hour discussion, which included a presentation from Gulf Power, represented by Destin attorney Dana Matthews, along with comments from nearby property owners represented by Tallahassee land-use attorney Terrell Arline and a number of comments from the public.

Solar panels like these were installed in Niceville by Gulf Power in 2017.

More:Walton commissioners to ratify denial of Gulf Power solar facility

Much of the discussion centered on whether the proposed 74.5-megawatt solar facility was a proper use of the agriculturally designated land where it would be located. With their narrow vote, commissioners rejected the view of Mac Carpenter, the county's planning director, who told commissioners the solar facility was an allowable use under both the county's land development code and its comprehensive land-use plan.

Following the Dec. 22 meeting, Gatewood said Gulf Power officials were "disappointed in the county’s decision and are evaluating our options. We will continue to look for opportunities to bring clean, emissions-free solar to Northwest Florida."

A Gulf Power engineer who was part of the utility's presentation to commissioners said during the meeting that Gulf Power has purchase options on another property in Walton County a couple miles away from the site under consideration. The utility also is looking at potential solar projects in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Escambia counties, along with a second solar project in Jackson County, the engineer said.

In a Thursday email, Glidewell discounted rumors that there might be some sort of legal action pending in connection with Gulf Power's proposal.

"I have no knowledge of any filed or proposed lawsuits regarding this project," he wrote.

Responding to a question regarding whether the postponed meeting might see some commissioners changing their original votes, Glidewell wrote that he could not discuss in advance how he will vote on any issue coming in front of the commission. He did write, though, that he "can say my understanding of the facts (surrounding the Gulf Power proposal) has not changed."

In the Tuesday interview, Anderson also said he could not discuss any vote he might make on the Gulf Power project in advance. But unlike Glidewell, he did not offer any comment on whether his view of the proposal had changed since the Dec. 22 meeting.