Speakers disagree on possible tax abatement for solar farm

Steve Nash
Brownwood Bulletin
Solar energy

A standing-room-only audience attended Monday's meeting of the Brown County Commissioners Court as the court voted 4-1 to approve guidelines and criteria for tax abatement.

While a proposed solar power farm near Brookesmith generated the large attendance and numerous comments, commissioner Gary Worley stressed the court was not approving a tax abatement at that time.

The guidelines will apply to any company seeking a tax abatement, Worley said.

The court took the vote after hearing comments from about a dozen speakers during the citizens comment portion of the meeting as well as a public hearing. Brown County Judge Paul Lilly voted against approving the tax abatement guidelines, saying he does not support tax abatement on a county level.

Proposed project, opposition

California-based Intersect Power is developing the Radian Solar Energy Project and proposes to build a  300 megawatt solar project on 2,000-3,000 acres of rural land in the Brookesmith school district.

Intersect is seeking a tax abatement for the project. Under a 10-year agreement, the project will start paying taxes in the first year, and by the final year of the agreement, will have paid nearly $6.5 million in taxes, with $1.4 million going to Brown County and $5.1 million to the Brookesmith ISD, Intersect has said.

A group of landowners called TLOW (Texas Landowners Opposing Wind) has stated several points of opposition, arguing that granting the abatement would be harmful to  Brown County.

Commissioner Gary Worley said approving guidelines and criteria “does not mean we will automatically grant a tax abatement to Radian Solar or anyone else. What it does mean is that if 3M, Kohler, Superior Cable or any other industry wishes to expand and they would like to have a tax abatement, then the criteria is already set.

“Just because we set these guidelines and criteria, doesn’t mean that anyone that fills out an application is automatically going to get it.”

Comments at Monday’s commissioners court meeting included:

Samuel Davis

Davis, a member of the Texas Land and Liberty Coalition, spoke in favor of the project. Davis said the organization advocates clean energy, which is "a key force for economic growth in Texas, especially rural areas of our state," Davis said.

For those concerned the project would drive down property values, studies have shown there is no impact to home values or agricultural land with visual barriers and at least 105 feet away from closest panels, Davis said.

“Solar farms are comparable to larger greenhouses,” Davis said. “ ... I just think the voices against the radian solar project are loud in contrast to the powerful silence of the future generations that stand to benefit from it.”

Terry Edgar

Edgar spoke in favor of the project and said he has done research. “It’s definitely going to benefit the county,” Edgar said. “The farmers already getting an abatement and we’re already government funded.

“This is just another step. We have the farm credits. We get a farm exemption on our taxes already. That’s an abatement. We get government funds from the (Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service) Office. This is no different.”

Steven Wilson

Wilson, a longtime Brown County resident, spoke against the project. “This is part of the new green deal,” Wilson said, noting that “the hard left (is) trying to shove this down our throats.”

Wilson said representatives of many families who oppose the project were present.  “They’re here because they’re concerned about the negative impacts of the solar farm and the negative impacts it could have for decades to come,” Wilson said.

“… Here we are in our generation standing up for the same conservative values that our forefathers did and our grandparents. We’re here to see that our conservative ways continue in Brown County. These companies are fueled by federal and state subsidies, county and school tax abatements, and provide little to no return on those investments. If not for the funding, these companies would fold.”

Ronnie Davis  

Davis, a small business owner, spoke against the project.

Davis noted that Brown County business owners “pay our portion of taxes that support the county, schools, etc. At no time is any abatement offered to us when we go to pay our taxes, and none is expected from most of us. And yes, sometimes these taxes are a burden but we continue on with our business.

“ …  In what way is this abatement benefiting the taxpayers of Brown County and just how is there going to be relief to Brown County taxpayers through this abatement?”

Dale Cummings

Cummings represents Intersect Power. He said the tax abatement guidelines that were before the court require applicants to use "reasonable efforts" to use Brown County vendors, to designate a local liaison and to advertise in the local newspaper for local contractors to work on the project.

Intersect Power has already received numerous inquiries from Brown County businesses about working on the project, which would require 300 to 400 construction workers and take about 15 months to complete. There would be two permanent jobs created by the project, Intersect has said.

Cummings said it’s not correct, as one speaker asserted, that Intersect has said it would go forward with the project without an abatement.

Cummings said he has previously stated it would be “extremely difficult” for Intersect to do the project without a tax abatement.

Steve Mickelson

Mickelson, the Brookesmith school district’s superintendent, said, “I am excited about this project. It will bring millions of dollars to not only the county but the school district. It is a significant help to our district.

"My guess is, if you do not vote in this abatement, that this project will not happen. And I think you’d be hard pressed to find one anywhere in the state that has happened without the abatement. This will provide a number of things for our district. I believe this is much needed.”

Jeff Tucker

Tucker, a property and business owner, spoke against the project.

“I’ve heard some talking points, discussing that the voices in the county (are) loud,” Tucker said. “The reason that they’re so loud is that there are so many in opposition to this abatement to this particular industry coming to the county.

“It’s a pandora’s box if we start allowing this foothold, both on the abatement side but more so in the industry itself, and what it does to the county and marketability and property.”

Comparing a tax abatement for a solar farm with abatements for companies such as Kohler and 3M “is not an apples and apples comparison," Tucker said, "especially when you look at the number of jobs and economic development created by those abatements, versus an industry such (solar), where we result in basically two permanent jobs.

“I don’t find that a windfall of economic growth. … When you start taking marketable land out of the county and you can no longer sell it or trade it on the open market, you’re going to do an immense amount of damage to private land rights. Already at this point, land is being purchased for additional future projects at higher rates than what land is going for currently.” 

Rex Tackett

Tackett, a business and property owner, spoke against the project.

“Voting ‘no’ to solar should be a no-brainer,” Tackett said. “Given the overwhelming opposition, I fail to understand why it’s even under consideration.”

While the project would provide a short-term benefit to the Brookesmith school district, “we strongly believe that the negative impact to the county outweighs those short-term benefits,” Tackett said. 

“Tax abatements encouraging solar will move us on a path toward turning Brown County into a Sweetwater and we don’t want that. Based on the overwhelming opposition to this abatement, we ask again that you do not continue any further consideration of backing this project.”

Christian Fiene

Fiene, representing Intersect Power, said he wanted to “reiterate our willingness to negotiate in good faith" to obtain a tax agreement that is fair to Intersect and would allow the project to be competitive, and to the county.

Fine said the company estimates it would pay more than $23 million in property taxes over 35 years.

Additional Worley comments

Worley said the commissioners court had received advice on tax abatements from the Allison, Bass and McGee legal firm. 

A representative of the firm “told us things about tax abatement that we didn’t necessarily know because nobody on this court has a great knowledge of a tax abatement,” Worley said. “He enlightened us a good bit and advised us that we probably need to establish a set of guidelines and criteria even if we didn’t want to approve an abatement for solar or wind or anything else.

“ … By establishing these guidelines and criteria, we’re letting people know that we would consider tax abatements for certain industries, and it would be approved on a case by case basis. Personally I’m neither for nor against a solar project at this time. I haven’t made my mind up.”