Land Use and Ad Valorem Tax Abatement Analysis as it Pertains to Lee County’s Solar Energy Systems Ordinance
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Lee County is in the heart of Southwest Georgia and is a rapidly growing community attracting young families to the excellent school system, while providing a moderate climate and beautiful landscape interspersed with creeks, lakes, plantations, and traditional rural character. The southern portion of the county supports most of the residential, commercial, and industrial development. The City of Leesburg is home to the school system and governmental buildings and serves as the county seat. Lee County is dedicated to encouraging a healthy mix of land uses while protecting and preserving prime agricultural areas for continued agricultural and agriculturally oriented uses. The intent is to preserve the open character of the area and protect the business of agriculture. The northern portion of the county is predominantly zoned AG-1 (Active Agriculture District) and supports productive farm operations. Natural resources and abundant wildlife offer recreational opportunities and scenic corridors to this important area. Quality, well-planned growth and the provision of community services is important, and the county strives to ensure a balance of revenue and expenditures.
In January 2020, a Solar Energy Systems (SES) Ordinance (Chapter 70, Article XXI) was adopted by the county, and provides for the siting, construction, installation and decommissioning, general and specific requirements of any new SES facility, to be constructed and operated in the AG-1 zone, within the unincorporated area of Lee County. Numerous formal and informal inquiries regarding intermediate and large-scale solar energy system facilities have been received within the recent past.
The Board of Commissioners is concerned about the potential of substantial loss of existing agricultural land and farming operations within the county due to large scale solar energy system construction and operation. Certain proposals include requests for ad valorem tax abatements to finance construction of such solar facilities. It is not clear to the Board of Commissioners whether such proposed ad valorem tax abatements for the personal property of the solar array installed for the large-scale SES facilities have a positive or negative long-term effect on the county’s ad valorem tax revenue.
On January 26, 2021, a Moratorium was declared upon the issuance of a conditional use permit for any large-scale SES facility through August 1, 2021. During this time, Lee County commissioned Valdosta State University to complete a careful and deliberate study of the short-term and long-term effects of financing the construction of SES facilities in Lee County through the use of revenue bonds and the use of long-term personal property ad valorem tax abatements to convince such large scale SES facilities to locate in Lee County, as well as the effect of such personal property tax abatements upon the ad valorem tax revenues of Lee County.
This report contains the results of this study. The impact of SES facilities was assessed in terms of two categories, fiscal impacts to county revenue sources and environmental impacts to land and property. The former category includes effects of using revenue bonds to incentivize SES development in Lee County, which produce positive fiscal impacts for the county. The latter category, however, includes impacts on agricultural land, viewshed and aesthetics, which can be negative when SES uses are inappropriately sited.