Chautauqua Solar Energy Center in Walton County may get second chance at life

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Walton County commissioners are set to consider a proposed settlement in a Gulf Power lawsuit filed against the county following the commission's 3-2 January vote against the utility's plan to build a solar power generation facility on nearly 900 acres in the north end of the county.

Broadly, the proposed settlement would allow Gulf Power to submit a new application for the project — the Chautauqua Solar Energy Center, proposed for a site at Harrison Road and Brown Road about three miles east of U.S. Highway 331 North — under the condition that the application meet a number of conditions that weren't in place for the original project.

The latest:Gulf Power, Walton County working to resolve court issues around planned solar farm

The Previous:Gulf Power challenging Walton County decision against solar power facility plan

In return, the county would clarify that "renewable energy uses" are allowed under provisions of the county's land development code that would apply to any new Gulf Power application.

The Blue Indigo Solar Energy Center in Jackson County is one of Gulf Power's solar power generation facilities. The Walton County Board of County Commissioners in January rejected Gulf Power's proposal for a solar facility, prompting the utility to file a lawsuit. A proposed settlement of the lawsuit is on the agenda for the commission meeting Tuesday.

More specifically, the proposed settlement dictates that the original "footprint" for the thousands of solar panels proposed for the project be reduced from about 465 acres to about 398 acres. It also requires additional setback for portions of the tract near "current or potential future residential structures," mandates additional vegetative buffering, establishes a water quality monitoring protocol, requires Gulf Power to provide $25,000 to the county to cover any potential fire response needs, and provides for certain open-space sections of the site be available for agricultural and other educational purposes.

Beyond that, the proposed settlement indicates that Gulf Power has plans for additional solar projects in the county, which the settlement would limit to an area in the immediate vicinity of the proposed Chautauqua Solar Energy Center site. Additionally, the settlement would dictate that future solar facility development in that specified area be limited to a maximum of 4,500 acres.

Also, the settlement would allow Gulf Power to use the county's "minor development" review process for any future projects. Under that process, Gulf Power's proposals would be reviewed by county planning bodies, with opportunities for public comment, but would not be subject to review or decisions from the County Commission.       

In the January vote that led to the lawsuit, Commissioners Danny Glidewell, Mike Barker and William "Boots" McCormick opted against allowing construction of the Chautauqua Solar Energy Center. Commissioners Tony Anderson and Trey Nick, the commission's chairman, voted in favor of issuing a development order for the project.

This diagram of a new proposal for the Chautauqua Solar Energy Center in northern Walton County is included in a proposed settlement of a lawsuit filed by Gulf Power in connection with the county commission's January rejection of the proposed solar energy facility.

In effectively deciding that the proposed solar facility did not comply with provisions of the county comprehensive plan and land development code, the commission went against Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter, who told commissioners that the solar facility complied with both documents.

Among other contentions in its lawsuit, Gulf Power asserted that commissioners relied too heavily on public comment from nearby property owners, who spoke at length both at the January meeting and at a December meeting when the requested development order also was on the agenda.

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

Among those speakers was Mark Walker of the Caney Creek Community Association, a neighborhood group, who said during the December meeting, “I don’t think it’s fair for a regulated utility to come in ... to the detriment of area homeowners. This will be an eyesore in our community, and it will most likely discourage future construction on adjacent land. Would you look at purchasing next to this plant?”

In its filing, Gulf Power contended "the neighbors merely testified to their general beliefs that there would be some impact to other properties if the (solar facility) was approved. These objections, however, cannot amount to competent substantial evidence to support the county's conclusion."

The proposed solar facility is part of a joint effort by Gulf Power and Florida Power and Light to install 30 million solar panels across Florida by 2030. At the time the commission was considering the request for the project, a Gulf Power engineer said the utility was looking at other locations in Walton County and elsewhere in the area as potential sites for solar power generation.

Gulf Power is proposing the Chautauqua Solar Energy Center as a 74.5 megawatt facility, because such facilities are not subject to state regulations. Those regulations apply to solar facilities generating 75 megawatts or more of electricity. A megawatt of electricity is enough to power the average family home for a little more than a month.