Hill County Commissioners to host public hearing on new solar panel farm

Posted at 9:37 PM, May 08, 2023

PENELOPE, Texas — Penelope, Texas is country town of less than 200 that residents describe as "peaceful" and "quiet".

Woody Root and his family moved to the area almost 20 years ago to get away from the hustle of city life and to enjoy the country.

"There's really no businesses here, no gas station, no grocery store," Root said.

"The post office used to be open all day, but now it's only four hours a day."

He tells 25 News now he's worried the quiet he's used to will be disrupted with the construction of a solar farm right across the street.

"I'm really shocked they would let this come in," he said of the project.

The Hill County Commission will host a public hearing on Tuesday to discuss rezoning hundreds of acres for the Ash Creek Solar Project ahead of a tax abatement vote.

Root said he's worried about the impact it'll have on the community.

"I'm not against solar energy, but it has its place," he said. "I've even looked into putting solar panels on top of this house, that's the place to put them on individual houses. But to put them on hundreds of acres of good farmland is just going to devastate the soil for at least thirty years."

Down the street, his neighbor Charles Beseda also doesn't want to see more panels coming to the area.

"It's downheartening really," he said.

"It's taking a lot of good land out of production. I told the guys, 'Why don't you go to west Texas?' — there's places out there where farmers really can't farm because it's so dry."

Beseda lives roughly a mile from another solar farm that was recently built.

"It was like driving in Dallas traffic with all the vehicles coming to the location," he remembers when it was being built.

"You know, county roads are narrow. Some of those people were courteous, and I have to get to work."

While Hill County residents are signing petitions and writing letters to county leaders urging them to vote against the solar farm, Judge Justin Lewis said it wouldn't be enough to block them.

"When they come to us for a tax abatement, you have to remember the county is maybe 15 to 17% of their tax bill so we're a very smidgen of what that bill is," Judge Lewis said.

"Once they get the agreement from the school district, that makes the project worthwhile."

The Penelope ISD School Board approved a tax abatement for this project late last year. Now Judge Lewis says a yes vote from the county would protect taxpayers.

"It's not that we do want to give them something, it's that we want something from them," he explained. "What that is is a road use agreement."

There's about 1,200 miles of gravel road in Hill County where equipment would be transported in and out of Penelope. A road use agreement would put the cost of any damage on the project's developers, Primergy, and not on the county.

"The solar panel companies have the same right to use these roads as you do, as I do, as anybody does, Judge Lewis said.

"But with the number of workers, 200 workers going to a solar farm site, large heavy loads going over these roads that were not designed for them, they can quickly destroy these county roads. In the period of a week or two, they can do several hundred dollars worth of damage."

But does that make up for losing the land? Farmers in Hill County say no. Many are concerned the solar panels will disrupt wildlife. They also say the fields will be leveled for the panels, which could raise the risk of flooding for surrounding farms when it rains.

Ash Creek developers say they are "committed to developing projects that protect the environment and do not pose additional environmental risks while providing affordable, carbon-free, clean renewable energy."