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Local solar projects raise concerns from ag interests
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COOLIDGE — Two solar projects being proposed in the Coolidge area, with the opposition of some farmers, would generate millions in taxes for the city and county, their representatives say. But that number, and the value of the projects as a whole, are under dispute.

Project Director JD Rullen, whose company NextEra Energy Resources, is proposing a Valley Farms solar project 3 miles east of downtown Coolidge, said the city, county and schools would reap the benefits through taxes.

The project would generate $1.5 million in taxes a year for 30 years for a total of $45 million. On the same land, agriculture would bring in $189,000 in total taxes every year, Rullen said.

Further along in the process is the proposed Eleven Mile Solar Center.

Orsted Energy Project Development Manager DJ Worth said he wants to hear from the community and the nearby landowners.

Worth said the Eleven Mile Solar Center is currently under development and is anticipated to be a 300-megawatt solar project consisting of solar panels, electrical equipment, access roads, collection lines and other associated infrastructure. Valley Farms is a 200-megawatt solar energy project on 18 acres.

While Orsted has surveyed the land in question, the city still needs to sign off on the site plan after it was tabled last month by the Coolidge Planning and Zoning Commission.

The commission was to meet Wednesday to consider the site plan for Orsted and to discuss the Valley Farms solar project. The commission’s recommendation on the Orsted site plan would then be forwarded to the City Council Oct. 25 for the final decision.

The commission met in September for the site plan review but tabled the item for a month to give the company time to address concerns some landowners have brought up.

Worth told the Coolidge Examiner the center would bring in tens of millions of dollars in taxes when completed and in operation for 30 years.

A published column by Coolidge farmer Noah Hiscox said there is no argument that tax monies collected from solar projects is more than agriculture, but the economic and environmental impact tell a larger story.

Coolidge City Manager Rick Miller did not know the figure but said he had been told solar tax dollars are significantly higher than those from agriculture. Economic Development Services Director Gilbert Lopez thinks the tens of millions of dollars in property taxes Worth mentioned is a little too optimistic.

Each acre of San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District-irrigated farmland currently pays $87 an acre, so 50,000 acres would amount to $4.35 million. Only about $8 of the $87 represents tax dollars for the city, county and schools.

Hiscox wrote that every year San Carlos District lands pay this amount for maintenance and operations and the operation of local schools, county and city governments.

“Most of the (farmers) think this is an obscene idea,” Hiscox said in an interview. “We look at it as destroying the land. It’s just ridiculous. It’s unbelievable. It’s against everything we stand for.”

Hiscox would not call the proposed projects solar farms, saying the term should be solar fields.

He added that once the 30-year lease expires, no crops could be grown or homes built because of the fear of what the solar project did to the land.

Rullen said after 30 years anything associated with Valley Farms solar project would be pulled up from the land.

“I honestly do not know what solar farms pay in property taxes,” Hiscox wrote. “It would nearly be impossible to estimate lost tax revenue from job losses and decreased sales to local businesses, so I am at a loss to honestly compare which pays more.”

Hiscox said he knows that local agriculture provides many jobs for numerous families, and even when one job is lost it is devastating not only for the family but for the entire community.

He said common sense is needed when pursuing remedies for cleaner and sustainable forms of energy.

“We are all opposed to warming our Earth’s atmosphere, so let’s not replace farmland that cleans and cools our planet with something that does quite the opposite,” he said. “Let’s limit solar to suitable locations and save our irrigated farmlands.“

He asked residents to attend both the zoning meeting and the Oct. 25 Coolidge City Council meeting when a decision might be made on the site plan.

Kirk McCarville, with Land Advisors Organization, said Pinal County has been an agricultural community, dating from a time with an abundance of water, but now the county is suffering from a drought.

He sees two options — let the farmers lose everything or convert lands for better uses, like solar.

“When you convert farms for solar, taxes go up, and it saves water for other farmers,” he said. “Solar is the savior of farms.”

He said the amount of taxes generated from solar when compared to agriculture is not even remotely close as evidenced by the numbers from the proposed Valley Farms Solar project.

Orsted’s next step after the site plan is to apply for building permits to progress toward construction.

Worth said his company wants to address any issues the community may have, including access roads and the landscaping to block the view from residents and motorists.

The Eleven Mile Solar Center, which received a conditional use permit from the city, would begin operations sometime in 2023. The life of the project would be 30 years.

There would be 300 construction jobs, but only a handful of employees would be at the site after construction.

“Power plants generate clean energy to Pinal County and the surrounding area,” he said. “Right now we are excited to work with the community.

Worth said Orsted sent 69 letters to the landowners living within 300 feet of the project and also had an open house that only three people attended.

“It’s important to go through this review process,” he said.

Landowner Peter Everhart on Sept. 22 met with Orsted executives as requested by Miller and Lopez for questions.

“Nothing in that meeting was beneficial,” Everhart said. “They already knew our concerns. We met for (90 minutes), and nothing was brought to the table.”

Everhart felt like he was being disrespected by the Orsted executive who attended the meeting telephonically.

“I am 34 years old and have never been talked to like that,” he said.

Worth said the concern on the vegetation has been addressed, with trees and shrubs to be planted to serve as a shield.

“We want to be good stewards of the land,” Worth said. “Our project is near Eleven Mile Corner, and we are working with farmers on our projects.”

For landowners who have questions, Worth is asking for those to be sent to him at dowor@orsted.com.

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Coolidge Days back with a bang
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COOLIDGE — After a year of absence of Coolidge Days because of COVID-19, the city reported that more people attended than expected this past weekend.

There were 28 booths or vendors, with 14 of them paying $200 to sell food. There were also three arts and crafts vendors who paid between $75 and $100 depending on whether electricity was needed. Another 11 booths, which were free, were for informational items.

There were 21 entries in Saturday’s parade, and more than a thousand residents lined the streets to watch.

The top marching section was awarded to the Coolidge High School marching band. Jotastic was named the best motorized antique vehicle, while M&S Equipment took the honor for best commercial entry.

For the civic entries, the Coolidge High School FFA team took the top honor.

Coolidge Parks and Recreation Administrative Assistant Ashley Freeman said there was no charge for the parade entrants.

The city had about 1,000 wrist bands for sale at $25 each, and they sold out, she said.

“We did not expect as many people as came out,” Freeman said, adding the carnival on Saturday night stayed open well past 10:30 p.m.

Freeman thinks the turnout could have had something to do with the city not being able to have Coolidge Days last year.

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Northern Avenue road work goes longer than expected
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COOLIDGE — The road construction project on Northern Avenue that was expected to be completed weeks ago has been pushed back to a date that is not yet known.

The contractor, Haydon Construction, has found more problems with leaks in the recent pipe installation, said Coolidge City Manager Rick Miller.

Previously, the timeline for the road project to be completed was two weeks ago, before the contractor and city realized the pipe was still leaking.

Miller said the problem may have been caused by the subcontractor Haydon hired and added the company is assessing the problem.

“We will not accept leaking irrigation pipe, and Haydon is currently assessing the problem and the solution,” Miller said.

He said the city is trying to minimize the closure impact of that road to the landowners and the high school. The hope is the project could be completed over the current two-week winter break.

The city manager is confident Haydon Construction will complete the project the right way.

Miller said Haydon might be losing money on the project because it is taking much longer to complete than anticipated. He said even with that, the city is not going to give the contractor a nickel more to finish the project under the terms of the contract.

“I haven’t looked at the provision in the contract for penalties but will consider that as this project continues to be delayed due to improper installation,” Miller said, adding that the city is not going to go down that path right now.

The project is being funded by a $5 million bond issue that voters approved in November 2019 for the Coolidge Aquatic Center and the Northern Avenue road construction.

Many students and staff going to Heartland Ranch Elementary, Coolidge Junior High and Coolidge High School have been taking detours to get to the schools for close to a month.

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Coolidge CERT team goes through final exercise
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COOLIDGE — The Community Emergency Response Team from Coolidge on Saturday morning put what they have learned in the last four weeks to the test.

CERT, which is made up of volunteers, went through a mock exercise at the Coolidge Police Department where a portion of the building had supposedly collapsed.

In pitch darkness the team entered a room (Coolidge City Council chambers) to look for surviving victims by calling out to see if anyone could hear them.

After they tended to a man who told the team he was injured but could walk on his own, this part of the exercise ended to tell them their first responsibilities.

The CERT team was informed that they first must gauge the situation and care for the victims who could not walk on their own or even the ones who were unconscious.

David Hudson, operations lead in Maricopa CERT, said this was the final drill for the team after receiving the training.

After the life, search and rescue exercise, the team used its training to extinguish a fire in the best way possible, which is to attack the blaze from the base.

Hudson pointed out that the CERT team going through the mock exercises was made up of Coolidge residents.

“They are volunteers of the community that wants to protect themselves, their families and the community in case a disaster were to happen,” Hudson said.