Residents of Archer’s Saint Peter neighborhood were rudely awakened by a public notice posted on a fence that was surrounded by vacant farmland.
The Alachua County commissioners, the notice said, would decide at an upcoming meeting whether to authorize a 650-acre utility-scale solar power plant on the agricultural land right outside the historically black town.
The 74.9-megawatt photovoltaic solar facility—called the Archer Solar Project—was a collaboration between power companies First Solar and Duke Energy.
“The first thing I thought of was this is a residential neighborhood. There’s a community here, you know,” said Michelle Rutledge, who lives right across from the site. “This is not a facility that’s compatible with the residential community.”
The community’s fight against the project, and another one proposed soon after, coincided with the Biden administration’s focus on environmental justice and its pledge to review laws and policies that govern where energy facilities are built. Communities of color have suffered disproportionate damage from pollution, the existence of power plants, power stations, and factories, as well the impacts of climate changes.
Rutledge rallied her local community to oppose the proposed solar facilities. Eventually, the Alachua county commissioners were persuaded to deny both of them. But her victory was short-lived: This summer, the state legislature voted to pass legislation backed by the power industry to prevent municipal governments from blocking any new energy infrastructure, not only undercutting local control, but delivering a blow to the environmental justice movement in the country’s third most populated state.
When the public notice went up on the fence post , the company interested in setting up the solar farm expected a special exemption from the county commissioners within four to five months, and for construction to begin by the end of 2020.
“That’s how we found out what was going on,” Rutledge recalled. “The county is required to display a notice by placing a sign on that property stating that there was going to be a zoning meeting to review the exemption request.”
Alachua County’s Planning Commission was tasked with reviewing the Archer Solar Project’s application for the special exemption, which was needed for agricultural property to be used for the solar power generation facility.
“These were still the early days of the pandemic and we were going through lockdowns. So, it was clearly not the right time for any such engagement,” she said. “It seemed like we were informed almost towards the end of whatever deal was almost done. So, it didn’t seem like there was any meaningful engagement on a matter that concerned the wellbeing of our community.”
Gerrie Crawford and Rutledge, who also live near the site of the proposed power station, said that some residents had been informed via Zoom a month prior about a remote community workshop at which the power plants would be explained.
“They only had, from what I gathered afterwards, six or eight people on the call,” Crawford said. “And they called it community engagement. It’s like wait a minute… six people can’t speak for our community,” she said.
Crawford said she soon organized a community conference call of her own for the neighbors to talk about the issue to get a better sense of what was going on so that they could plan ahead.
“And as we delved more into it we realized this plan was on the table for some years,” she said. “And here we are just finding out about it over a holiday weekend. And you’re saying that you had community engagement. So, we just kind of started from that point.”
Crawford explained that the core group was made up of neighbors who met with county commissioners. “We hired ourselves an attorney by pooling our money together, knowing that we will have to take the charge,” she added.
The Saint Peter Saint Paul Community Council’s mission was to highlight future environmental and health impacts from the solar power project on the community.
“It’s a great idea. But it’s in the wrong location,” said Crawford, who became the chair of the newly-formed community group, referring to the planned solar facility .
“We asked the county government to consider cumulative factors such as compatibility, community impact, cultural significance, systemic racism in land use, zoning, and urban planning, and environmental racism while making a decision,” she said.
Crawford stated that Archer’s African American families have been working the land since the 1800s. “My grandfather bought our property 100 years ago,” she said.
She claimed that her neighbors and family are descendants of those who were driven from Rosewood in Levy County, just over 30 miles from Archer in 1923 during Rosewood Massacre. Six Black residents were killed and several hundred whites set the town on fire. Eyewitness accounts suggest that there may have been more.
The state of Florida provided $2.1 million in 1994 for the survivors of the massacre.
”Our families have experienced historical events such as the Rosewood Massacre,” she said. “Our families have ties to those types of experiences since the Civil War, Jim Crow, and having to escape.”
The proposed solar farm, she said, also threatened a cemetery where her ancestors are buried across the street from St. Peter’s Baptist Church, which was founded in 1867.
Crawford said that in the 1960s, the drive to electrify neighborhoods rendered her great aunt’s property unusable because of the high-transmission wires and huge poles that ran right through the property.
“And this will happen again this time around in the name of renewables,” Crawford said. “We support renewable energy. But we feel it has to be a just transition to break the cycle of past injustices in the name of progress.”
Rutledge said her family has been in the area since the 1800s and has experienced the ordeal of slavery for generations.“This area has seen many instances of public lynchings,” she said.
Alachua County established a Truth and Reconciliation process in 2018 to “set an example for how local government can recall its role in our history of racial injustice, and repair what it can through official apologies and appropriate reparations,” according to a county website. Rutledge said the county has also recently created an Equity & Community Outreach Plan to address environmental and systemic racism, by improving policies and procedures and that help bring some kind of reconciliation to past traumas.
“That’s why we advocate for community-led energy planning processes for an equitable and just transition to renewables,” she said.
The county commissioners had posted the notice on the fence. In the following months, the Saint Peter Saint Paul Community Council, headed by Crawford and Rutledge rallied Archer residents to oppose the construction of the solar electricity generation facility.
They stated that they had pointed out the lack in community engagement and the adverse environmental harms to the residents from the proposed facility’s close proximity. There was also a need for just, equitable transition to renewables to avoid any environmental racism in decision-making.
Alachua County commissioners voted 3-1 against the solar farm proposal in a special meeting that took place on October 6, 2020.
The meeting featured testimony from residents and letters from community members. National environmental groups, including the Sierra Club’s Florida Chapter, and the Alachua County NAACP sent letters opposing the project.
Charles Chestnut, Commissioner, voted against the project. He said that the facility was an unknown risk to the property values of nearby properties. He claimed that there had been no outreach by the company towards the Saint Peter residents who live near the proposed project site.
“A solar power farm simply does not belong in a residential community,” Commissioner Ken Cornell said.
Saint Peter residents had won a victory. But they soon had another fight. In the spring of 2021, Miami-based Origis Energy applied for a second special exemption for another 638-acre utility-scale solar power plant. The proposed location was a different historically African-American rural neighborhood right outside the Archer city limits called Sand Bluff.
As with the previous proposal, Black residents living in the neighborhood for generations owned a large portion of the surrounding land and objected to the proposal for similar reasons.
Loretha Cleveland is the owner of property near the proposed site. She claimed that her family has lived in this area since her great-grandfather Tom Robinson Sr. arrived in the late 1800s. Many descendants of his family call the area home.
Cleveland stated that the community opposed the installation of an industrial-scale utility in the middle rural area. According to Cleveland, the neighborhood gets its electricity from another energy company and there is no direct benefit to the community by hosting the solar farm.
Many residents, like those who lived in Saint Peter complained about the lack of meaningful engagement with their community. In July, the county commissioners rejected the project 3-2 after several hours of argument.
The commissioners who voted against the solar farm said it was clear from the residents’ testimony that not enough community engagement was done.
Chestnut voted against the proposal. He said it was important that we acknowledge that historically, Black and other minorities have been ignored when new projects invade their neighborhoods. .
Despite the overwhelming community opposition to Archer’s proposed solar facilities at the beginning of the year, 14 preemption bills were filed in the Florida legislature. These preemption bills limit the ability of local governments and other energy-related facilities to be blocked.
Nearly twenty-six community groups and rights organisations sent an open letter to Governor at the time. Rick DeSantis, Republican, asked him to veto it.
“These bills impair municipal charter and ordinance provisions specifically adopted and approved by local communities to define their preferred form of self-government and safeguard issues of perennial importance to their communities,” the letter said.
The letter stated that many bills were aggressively supported and funded by powerful corporate interests, who are determined to profit more than Floridians. “This form of state interference undercuts the ability of Floridians to address the unique and urgent needs of our communities and disportionately harms the most vulnerable and marginalized Floridians,” it said.
One of the bills, Senate Bill 896, expanded the definition of “renewable energy” to include “renewable” natural gas, defined as “anaerobically generated biogas, landfill gas, or wastewater treatment gas.” Another, House Bill 1008, permitted solar facilities on agricultural land subject to local zoning laws.
After rushing through the Senate and House in the last days of its summer session, the legislature passed SB896 on June 28. This was amid a flurry other preemption bills. An amendment to House Bill 1008, which prohibits local governments from opposing solar facilities located on land zoned for agricultural, was also added.
Florida Gov. It was signed by Ron DeSantis (a Republican) the next day.
Ida Eskamani is an advocate for the Florida Rising social and economic justice organization. She said that Republican lawmakers broke the rules by including preemption language regarding solar power plants in an unrelated bill.
“The original bill—SB1008—regarding the preemption of solar power plants was a dead bill in the legislative process because in order to be introduced as an amendment, a bill has to have at least one hearing. But this bill did not move at all,” Eskamani said.
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The will of impacted communities and local governments, she said, had been taken “out of the equation at the behest of the utility companies. We have seen time and time again when there’s a victory for the community and loss for corporate interests at the local level, they just go to the legislature, write a big check and get them to pass a preemption.”
While the two previous votes by the Alachua County commissioners against the solar facilities won’t be superseded by the preemption legislation, utility companies can now submit new projects on new locations in the same area, and local authorities would not have the power to say no.
It could be back to square 1 for the Saint Peter residents who successfully fought against a solar farm being built on their land.
“What would keep another solar farm from coming in the same way that earlier one tried to do, especially in a new legislative environment where the counties don’t have the power to deny such an application,” Crawford said. “Now it’s a decision between the landowner of the vacant farmland and the private entity, for instance the utility company. So, it just takes the public out of the decision.”
Source: Inside Climate News