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Wayne Hughes, who owns land near a proposed solar development near La. 445 east of Amite City, shares worries about that project with Councilors Brigette Delatte Hyde, Kim Coates, and John Ingraffia at a meeting of the Tangipahoa Parish Council's Development Regulations Committee, Wednesday, July 7, 2021. 

AMITE CITY — Under pressure from angry farmers and residents, some Tangipahoa Parish leaders want to set tighter rules on solar power plants — but others argue it's hypocritical for a parish that has long rejected zoning rules to crack down on specific industries.

The Parish Council is weighing rules requiring utility-scale solar plants — meaning solar panel farms big enough to contribute to the power grid — to place visual buffers and follow some existing development rules. Supporters say those are reasonable guardrails for an industry that remains unregulated at the state level.

But as residents and the council discussed the rules at Monday’s council meeting, Councilman Carlo S. Bruno accused supporters of the regulations of overstepping their reach in the zoning-free parish, where development has historically proceeded largely unhindered.

“We don’t have zoning in this parish. We tried it; people didn’t want it,” Bruno said at the meeting. “The only time you hear about zoning is when something like the solar panels come up. If you want to (regulate) these things, you have to pass zoning. These (special ordinances) are getting too restrictive on people.”

The debate over the council's right to influence development ignited last year, when the council considered halting all new development as it weighed how to more effectively curb flooding damage. More development creates more concrete, which in turn obstructs water runoff, posing greater risk to flood-prone areas.

Tensions over solar regulations, however, are new. Proposed amid a backlash from farmers and Republican legislators as a renewable energy boom sweeps south Louisiana, parish-level solar development ordinances in Tangipahoa are necessary because there aren't any state rules, according to the council members who devised them.

Two companies, Florida-based NextEra Energy and Chicago’s Invenergy, have begun planning projects in Tangipahoa Parish that could break ground by 2023.

The parish’s draft rules would require 100-foot buffer zones around utility-scale solar developments — 25 feet of maintained native vegetation, plus 75 feet of space planted with whatever the landowner chooses. Developments would have to be surrounded by fences. They would also have to be at least 500 feet away from homes and would need to conform to parish drainage rules.

At Monday’s meeting, Bruno — an oil and gas executive who has pushed for more commercial development in Tangipahoa — said first-term District 10 Councilwoman Kim Coates has done an admirable job of devising the regulations in the face of myriad competing interests from solar corporations, landowners who want to lease to the companies and frustrated neighbors.

But the regulations are “a reach” beyond what officials should be allowed to enact in a parish without zoning regulations, he said.

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“It looks to me as though y’all are just trying to shut down everything,” Bruno said at the meeting. “You’re making it longer and harder for people to do what they want.”

Rather than being an overreach of the council’s authority, Coates argues the special-provision solar regulations are the perfect example of how a local government is supposed to step into development discussions in a region without zoning regulations. The special-provision ordinance has worked well in that role, she said.

“We can’t just have different types of businesses that are completely unregulated,” Coates said. “That’s part of the reason to have a parish government.”

“We’re not stopping development,” she added, “we’re just trying to have smart development.”

Residents, meanwhile, have grown increasingly divided over whether the solar projects — one planned off La. 445 east of Amite City, the other off La. 10 near Fluker — should have a home in Tangipahoa Parish.

Terry Chambers, an energy efficiency and sustainable energy expert at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, tried to assuage landowners’ fears about the plants at a meeting of the council’s Development Regulations Committee last week.

Residents need not worry that solar panels will poison their water sources or hinder future agricultural prosperity of the land, Chambers assured them. Those are two of the most commonly shared fears by landowners about the plants.

Bruno, the District 4 councilman, speculated Monday that residents appeared to be acting selectively about which developments they want zoning standards applied to. The same thing has happened in the past, he said, such as when a new Walmart distribution center was constructed near Hammond. 

"If you're worried about the ground getting bad, put 2,000 houses on that piece of property with a sewer system that's draining into your creek," he said. "Out of all the things that are going to go on the property — and something's going to go on it — you could get an awful lot worse (than solar panels.)"

The Parish Council is set to vote on the parish-level solar ordinance at its next meeting July 26.


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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