FPU, Amelia River Golf propose controversial solar farm near airport

Solar-Install copy
'We’ve been looking for a way to do solar on the island where we can.'

“Change” is often a four-letter word on Amelia Island, and so concerns immediately came to the fore when residents learned of a solar farm planned for land adjacent to the Amelia River Club.

Amelia River Holdings leases a parcel of Fernandina Beach airport property, for which the allowable uses are currently a golf course or a lodging facility. The company is looking to have that lease amended to allow for a solar farm and hangars.

“We have a long, sustained, committed activism for conservation, and this community is facing so many development pressures,” local resident Julie Ferreira said recently to the Fernandina Beach City Commission.

“We did, at one point, have an idyllic island, but it’s rapidly changing, and this application to change the golf course lease is going to jeopardize, in my opinion, any attempt that we can maintain an island or a city that has an ecologically diverse character that includes wildlife.”

Florida Public Utilities (FPU) initiated the process by approaching Amelia Island Golf to discuss solar farm possibilities.

“I’ll say that FPU cares about its pocketbook,” Ferreira said. “I’m with the Sierra Club. I love green energy. I love solar energy. But not when you cut down 36 acres in order to be able to get it. The land on this island has been broken up by humans. The animal diversity has either been imperiled or has disappeared, largely. This is going to be another loss of wildlife corridor and another loss of wild land and wild space.”

The Commission was supposed to address the golf course agreement at their most recent meeting, but the item was removed from consideration for the time being. Interim City Manager Charlie George recommended the Commission approve the amendment, which would allow for “construction, installation and maintenance of a solar farm and aeronautical and non-aeronautical hangars” in addition to the previous approved uses of the land.

Tom Miller of Amelia River Golf laid out the plan for Commissioners and why he believes it’s a positive move for the city. He and a couple business partners took over the golf course’s lease a few years ago.

“We put a ton of time, sweat, equity, money into that club,” Miller said. “It’s kind of … my long-term vision of what I want to do for years to come. We actually turned a profit last year, which was probably the first time that golf course has turned a profit in I don’t know how long.

“At the end of the day, this land that we’re talking about and referring to, it’s never really been at the forefront of my mind to go chop down a forest and build solar panels and all this kind of stuff.”

That’s where FPU stepped in, a couple years ago, regarding the idea. Miller said he’s not an expert on this sort of thing, but he loves the island and has several businesses there and plans on living on Amelia Island for the future.

“We’re not here asking to build a solar farm,” said Mike Castle, Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs for FPU parent company Chesapeake Utilities. “We’re not here asking to cut down trees. We’re very conscientious about our footprint, our environmental footprint, our responsibility as good public citizens and an energy provider in this community.”

What the utility wants to do is find out if the city would be willing with move forward with this sort of project. FPU doesn’t want to put forth the time, effort and resources developing a proposal to find out the city wasn’t interested from the start.

The facility proposed for the airport adjacent-land would support up to a 5-megawatt solar farm, Castle said. The island averages around 50 megawatts, but in previous years peaked around 112 megawatts.

While the proposed solar farm is near the water, he said the land is high and dry, with no issues regarding wetlands.

“We’ve been looking for a way to do solar on the island where we can,” Castle said. “So, it would be up to a 5-megawatt facility, (but) it doesn’t have to be 5 megawatts. It could be 2.5, it could be a number of things. It would be located on that 36 acres … and that is immediately west of the closed runway/taxiway.”

Transmission lines would likely be underground, he noted, with adjustable panel heights under 15 feet. Should the solar farm become obsolete in several decades, FPU would go in and remediate the land to put it as close to the pre-construction condition as possible.

“We want resiliency, we want reliability, we want better power quality for our customers out here,” Castle said. “This accomplishes all those. The renewable energy goes right back into Amelia Island, onto the grid, to be served here on Amelia Island.”

Putting power generation onto the island alleviates some of the issues that come with maintaining and restoring power following storms and the like. A solar farm would also provide habitat for pollinators and stabilize the soil, he said, though some residents questioned whether the soil stability claim is accurate.

“We have looked at other land,” Castle said. “This is an idea that, as a utility, we’ve looked for a number of years at a way we could do this. … Our environmental footprint is important to us, so we are looking for ways to actively mitigate that.”

They’re open to ideas of positioning solar panels in such a way that FPU could save some of the oldest and largest trees in that 36-acre parcel.

Commissioner David Sturges suggested FPU look again at large green areas within the airport proper to put solar panels without having to cut down trees. Castle said they would look into it, though approval for that type of work would largely be in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In addition to all the other hurdles the project faces, including renegotiating the lease, Commissioner Chip Ross said there’s not a clear access to the land and cutting the trees decreases the island’s canopy by 1%, which may put the overall canopy under the standard set forth in the comprehensive plan. He said he’s opposed to such a tree clearance.

Commissioner Darron Ayscue commented that he’s in favor of a solar farm, but if Ross is correct on all the hurdles, the project likely isn’t getting off the ground.

“If we can get creative and try to refine the idea, I would definitely support it, if it makes sense,” Commissioner James Antun said.

Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Jacksonville and previously covered state politics, environmental issues and courts for the News-Leader in Fernandina Beach. You can reach Wes at [email protected] and @WesWolfeFP. Facebook: facebook.com/wes.wolfe


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Drew Dixon, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704