​​​​​​​Commissioners hear from citizens about solar plant project

Photo by David Barber
VZC Pct. 1 Commissioner Brandon Brown, VZC Pct. 2 Commissioner Virgil Melton Jr. and VZC Judge Don Kirkpatrick, left to right, listen to one of several citizens that spoke Dec. 26 during the VZC Commissioners Court meeting about a proposed solar construction project.

A large crowd of Van Zandt County Pct. 2 citizens were among those that attended the regular meeting of the VZC Commissioners Court Dec. 26.

Due to the large turnout, the meeting was moved upstairs to the VZC District Courtroom in the VZC Courthouse.

Nine citizens signed up to speak about concerns they had regarding a planned solar plant construction project located between the Whitton and Jackson communities.

Around 150 VZC Pct. 2 citizens packed the Whitton Community Center Dec. 17 to receive information and ask questions about the project.

Following the speeches from the nine citizens, who were given two minutes each to make their presentations at the Dec. 26 VZC Commissioners Court meeting, the commissioners then heard from Edom Tea Party Founder and Director Dr. Dwayne Collins.

“I did not find out about this project until about four weeks ago,” said Collins to the commissioners’ court. “It concerned me. Property rights are very important and we should be able to do with our property as we see fit but when the government comes in and gets involved and this is a situation where the government is involved by asking for tax abatements and getting grants from the federal government and probably from the state, that involves all of us. That is our tax paying money.

“The project is green energy, solar power. That all sounds good until you do your research. This is a company from California that is moving these projects into our state. In Georgetown, Texas, they have gone 100 percent green energy. In the last two years, it has cost them $23 million beyond what their contract said it would cost them and they are locked into that contract. Why are they coming to Van Zandt County? If they want to build this project, let them take it to the backyard of former Texas Governor Rick Perry who is now our U. S. Secretary of Energy. I have taken the opportunity to contact our elected officials to get some questions answered about this project.

“This is an overwhelming project and to not engage the entire community on what is going on to me is suspect at best and we as citizens need to be aware of what is coming into our community. I am totally against this project. We need to think about our neighbors.”

The commissioners court then recognized Save Van Zandt County Founder and VZC Pct. 2 resident David Dunagan who shared some remarks.

Save Van Zandt County is a citizens organization group founded by Dunagan. The mission of Save VZC is to stop the project before construction begins, educate other Texas citizens and work to enact laws to prevent the destruction of land for this purpose, according to Dunagan.

“Please understand our resolve to stop this project,” emphasized Dunagan to the commissioners’ court. “We need you to back us, support us and help us to stop this project. This project is being done in secrecy and with a lack of communication at almost every turn. The companies involved have been secretive, misleading and downright deceptive.

“With the truth now out in the open, I was hoping that four or five of the landowners who have leased to this organization would begin to better understand what they have done to their neighbors and would have a change of heart. I was hoping that by now, some of them would have wished that they had not signed off in the first place.

Turning to the audience, Dunagan said, “All of this has solidified why my wife and I moved here. It is because of you. As good neighbors, if we are going to do something that is going to affect our neighbor, we go and talk to our neighbor about it. If we are going to sell a piece of land, we turn to our neighbor and ask if they would like to buy it first. We take care of each other. We are very disappointed to see this particular situation get to where it is now because we have so many good neighbors out here.”

Dunagan then told the commissioners’ court, “We are behind the eight-ball right now and I appreciate you for listening to us. We are just asking for more action from you now.”

The Save VZC founder then directed his comments to Pattern Energy, the California company that has recently joined companies from Germany and Romania in the solar construction project between the Whitton and Jackson communities.

“A company from California has now swooped in for a quick meeting and is now refusing to offer to show us those contracts. They could turn this project over to another entity,” pointed out Dunagan. “I recently received a telephone call from the California company and they expressed an interest in having a meeting. I had one meeting with them here at the courthouse. I asked them if remediation was guaranteed in writing in these contracts? I am not interested in the financials. That request was denied. The only solar projects that this company is involved in is in Chile and Japan.

“We will fight this project at every single turn,” summarized Dunagan. “We will question every action this company makes. We will push for a review of every single regulation to protect ourselves, our property and our community. We are asking for help from our state legislators. We will travel to Washington. If oil and gas have a ton of regulations, wind and solar should have the same. Let’s make this level.”

Dunagan then presented and read a resolution asking for the commissioners’ court to support the actions of Save Van Zandt County against the solar construction project.

Pattern Energy North America Head of Business Development George Hardy, representing the California company that has recently become involved in the proposed project, spoke to the commissioners’ court and responded to Dunagan’s remarks.

“Mr. Dunagan, you are a tough act to follow but I am going to try,” said Hardy. “Mr. Dunagan is entitled to his opinion and he is entitled to express legitimate concerns. He is not entitled to his own set of facts. Our company corporate headquarters is based in San Francisco. Our operational and business development headquarters is in Houston. I have been in the wind and solar industry for over 25 years. We have been primarily a wind energy development company and we are late getting into the solar industry. Our mission is to develop solar projects.

“We do everything possible to direct local concerns. I am more than happy to provide references from local landowners and local county officials from the areas where we do business. We take our local and civic responsibilities very seriously.

“Texas is the leading state in wind energy and solar energy is growing rapidly,” said Hardy. “On certain days, wind is providing half of the power in Texas. Solar power is a good compliment to wind. Wind and solar are the cheapest new form of power in the whole world.

“These companies that have already come in here to sign up landowners have done a lot of things right but one thing they have not done right is reach out to the community to address local concerns and that needs to happen. Some of the concerns I have heard are legitimate concerns dealing with property values, the environment and restoration of the project after its useful life is over. Those concerns need to be addressed.

“This project will provide significant local benefits. Over the 25-year life of the project, the total benefits to Van Zandt County and the Canton School District will be in excess of $20 million. I have just become aware of this project 10 days ago. Some of Mr. Dunagan’s concerns have merit but many do not. We are not in the business of coming into communities where we are not wanted. I believe this can be a good project for Canton and Van Zandt County. That is not going to happen overnight. We have been somewhat surprised by the level of concern regarding this project. We need an opportunity to reach out to local residents and address legitimate local concerns. I would ask that this resolution be tabled and give us a reasonable time period, maybe a month, to meet with the community and address concerns.”

Pattern Development Land Director Deann Lanz was the final speaker to meet with the commissioners’ court on the solar plant construction issue.

“My responsibilities are to listen and address concerns from the landowners in the community and I take my role very seriously,” emphasized Lanz. “When we go into construction, the promises that we have made are met. We continue to meet those commitments. We acquired this project 12 days ago. Two days after we acquired it, we learned that there were significant community concerns. My team and I came up here immediately and reached out to Mr. Dunagan. We tried to have as many meetings as we could working around holiday schedules.

“We realized that people were angry, frustrated and scared. I then learned how our predecessor communicated with the community and the commissioners and I don’t blame the people for feeling the way that they do right now. There has been an extreme lack of transparency and communication by our predecessor and there is a lot of outdated information that has been shared. This does not accurately describe the project we want to build. Our goal is to be here to listen to concerns and meet with the people.”

Lanz said that her team and the company would like to have a large public Town Hall meeting sometime in January where they can answer questions and explain the project as a whole.

“We feel like that the resolution presented to you is premature,” pointed out Lanz. “We would like to have the chance to provide the big picture of what we want to do. Part of the research that has been mentioned involves listening to us. From reading the resolution, there are a number of things that are not correct based on outdated information and speculation based on a lack of information. We will have our Town Hall meeting regardless of what you decide to do regarding the resolution. We respectfully ask that you table the resolution for a month.”

VZC Pct. 3 Commissioner Keith Pearson said to those in attendance, “Today (Dec. 26) is the first time that this company has come before this court. We have not kept any secrets from you. There was a financial company out of Rockwall that worked for the former company that came to this court during a workshop and was requesting tax abatements. We have made no decision on that. We heard what they had to say and we met with our lawyer and heard what the lawyer had to say.”

VZC Pct. 2 Commissioner Virgil Melton Jr. made a motion to “support the concerns” expressed in the resolution and requested that the court issue a “resolution of concern.”

“We don’t have any factual information about some of the items in the resolution,” pointed out Melton. “We need more information. I do believe the citizens of VZC have a right to come before this court and present a resolution and we have a duty to consider the resolution. We understand the rights of the company to come and address this court. The PR campaign on this project has been horrible.”

Pearson seconded Melton’s motion and the “resolution of concern” was approved unanimously by the commissioners’ court.

VZC Judge Don Kirkpatrick ended the meeting on the topic by informing those in attendance, “Thank you for your conduct and professionalism that you showed today (Dec. 26),” said Kirkpatrick.