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County Commission pulls plug on proposed Millington solar farm

Shelby County Commissioners pulled the plug on a proposed 1,500-acre solar farm in Millington after a request for an exception to a moratorium on the facilities failed to sway enough members in its third and final reading during the Monday, February 26 meeting.

The 5-4 vote ends a frequently deferred six-month process.  A final vote requires a seven-vote majority to pass. An appeal in Chancery Court is likely, where the matter will be settled. 

Earmarked for parcels adjacent to a conservation agriculture district and residential areas, the proposed 150-megawatt Graceland Solar facility drew significant shade from residents concerned with the potential impact of the large-scale project.

German-owned RWE Renewables is Graceland Solar’s parent company.

“We bought our land because of the character of the neighborhood…the farmland, the trees, the wild animals. If this project is approved, we will no longer see that. We will see miles and miles of metal – heavy metal. How does that not change the characteristics of the neighborhood,” said Amy Mills.

The Millington landowner is also one of several residents who rely on a nearby access road that would be directly impacted by the project’s construction. She was joined by others in criticizing the proposal during public comments.

Yet, according to proponents, any further negative impacts from the solar farm would be ‘negligible.” 

Pitched as a clean alternative to TVA-purchased supply, proponents also promoted the project as a surefire boon to the county’s tax coffers.

“We are approaching a new era and a new time in Shelby County. Basically, what we are attempting to do is provide energy to 24,000 homes in Shelby County and generate over $20 million in tax revenue over the life of the project,” said Van Turner.

The former two-term commissioner is serving as co-council for the solar company. He was joined by company representatives, area contractors, the landowner and a small contingent of like-minded residents speaking in favor of the project.

The money would flow in through annual $800,000 allotments.

Turner also countered recent media reports that the energy generated at the facility would be sold on the open market to a far-flung client or community.

Along with thousands of solar panels, a list of conditions would also need to be contained within its 2.3-mile footprint. In addition to not affecting the character of the community or its flow of traffic, a 84-foot setback would be required from Singleton Road. The site would need to sit at least 758 feet from single-use residential areas. The boundary would be supplemented by a 35-foot buffer. Landscaping would also be required to obscure the facility. 

Other stipulations include an impact study on adjacent properties. RWE Renewables would also need to post a bond, to cover costs if the panels are required to be removed before the 40-year operations contract would expire.

Although the energy company agreed to the terms set out by the Shelby County Division of Planning and Zoning  – and the moratorium – the benefits failed to outweigh the potential negatives for sympathetic commission members.

One member reminisced on the shortcomings that distinguished the artist-rendered designs of a recently completed large-scale project –  the Memphis Sports & Events Center. Located near the southern end of Liberty Park, the parking lot of the six-acre, $60 million multipurpose facility often sits near-empty. It opened in 2022.

“When I think about the picture painted as compared to the reality, I empathize with you because it frustrates my soul every single day. To have to drive by an ugly gray box, that is pictured to have trees and lights and all these things but has never panned out,” said Commissioner Britney Thornton.

A colleague expressed her opinion more bluntly…

“I wouldn’t want to move to a neighborhood next to a massive monstrosity of a solar farm,” said Commissioner Amber Mills.

Voting in favor of the resolution were Shante Avant, David Bradford, Henri Brooks, Mickell Lowery and Erika Sugarmon. Opposed were Edmund Ford, Jr., Mick Wright, Mills and Thornton. Meanwhile, Charlie Caswell and Commission Chair Miska Clay-Bibbs abstained, while Brandon Morrison recused herself.

The Graceland Solar project is the second energy-related project in recent memory to fail to seek local approval. In 2021, the ill-fated Byhalia pipeline project was canceled after receiving pushback from activists, as well as community members who live along its proposed path. Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris also spoke out against the project.

A proposed biomass facility – Urban Memphis Wood – is currently being considered by the city council. It has seen a mixed bag of supporters and detractors, although many nearby North Memphis residents are opposed.

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