An African American Community in Florida Blocked Two Proposed Solar Farms. Then the Florida Legislature Stepped In.
In May 2020, the residents of the Saint Peter neighborhood in Archer, Florida, had a rude awakening when a public notice went up on a fence around 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 harm from pollution, the presence of landfills, power plants and factories, and from the impacts of climate change.
Rutledge rallied her community to fight the proposed solar facilities, ultimately persuading the Alachua County commissioners to deny both projects. 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.”
Rutledge and Gerrie Crawford, who also live across from the proposed power plant site, said some residents had received word a month earlier about a remote community workshop, via Zoom, at which the power plant 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.”
The neighbors formed a core group, Crawford continued, which held a couple meetings with the 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 said that African American families in Archer have worked the land there since the early 1800s. “My grandfather bought our property 100 years ago,” she said.
Neighbors and members of her family, she said, are descendants of those who were driven out of Rosewood in Levy County, a little over 30 miles from Archer, in 1923 during the Rosewood Massacre, when several hundred whites burned the town to the ground and killed six Black residents, and possibly many more, according to eyewitness accounts.
In 1994, the state of Florida allocated $2.1 million for surviving victims 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.
In the months after the county commissioners posted the public notice on the fence post, the Saint Peter Saint Paul Community Council, led by Crawford and Rutledge, rallied Archer residents and argued against building the solar electricity generation facility before county officials.
They said they pointed out the lack of community engagement on the matter, adverse environmental harms for the residents due to close proximity of the proposed facility, and a need for just and equitable transition to renewables to avoid environmental racism in decision making.
In a special meeting held on Oct 6, 2020, the Alachua County commissioners voted 3-2 against the solar power farm proposal.
During the meeting, commissioners discussed letters from the community members and testimonies from the residents. National environmental groups, including the Sierra Club’s Florida Chapter, and the Alachua County NAACP sent letters opposing the project.
Commissioner Charles Chestnut, who voted against the project, said the facility posed an unknown risk to property values of nearby homes. He said there had been a lack of community outreach by the company to the Saint Peter residents, living next to the proposed project site.
“A solar power farm simply does not belong in a residential community,” Commissioner Ken Cornell said.
The residents of Saint Peter had scored a victory. But they soon had to face 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 owns property adjacent to the proposed site. She said her family has lived in the area since her great-grandfather, Tom Robinson Sr., arrived there in the late 1800s. The area is home to many descendants of his family.
Cleveland said the community was opposed to putting an industrial-scale power utility in the middle of a quiet agricultural zone. The neighborhood gets its power from another energy company, she said, and there was no direct benefit to the community for hosting the solar farm.
As with those who lived in Saint Peter, many residents complained about the absence of meaningful engagement with the community, and in July, the county Commissioners voted 3-2 to reject the project after hearing several hours of arguments.
The commissioners who voted against the solar farm said it was clear from the residents’ testimony that not enough community engagement was done.
Chestnut, who voted against the proposal, said it was important to acknowledge that historically Black and other minority groups have been ignored when new projects encroach on their neighborhoods. .
While all of the community opposition in Archer was coalescing around the two proposed solar facilities, 14 preemption bills were introduced in the Florida legislature at the start of this year, limiting the ability of local governments to block various energy-related facilities.
Nearly two dozen community groups and rights organizations sent an open letter at the time to Gov. Rick DeSantis, a Republican, urging him to veto the legislation.
“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 said that many of these bills were aggressively supported by powerful corporate interests determined to put profits over the voices of 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.
On June 28, the legislature passed SB 896 after rushing it through the Senate and the House in the final days of its summer session, amidst a flurry of other preemption bills. House Bill 1008, blocking local governments from opposing solar facilities on land zoned for agriculture, was added as an amendment.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed it into law the following day.
Ida Eskamani, an advocate with the social and economic justice organization Florida Rising, said Republican lawmakers violated the rules by including preemption language about 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.
For the residents of Saint Peter who successfully fought off a solar farm on their land, it could be back to square one.
“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.”