By Mike Lednovich
The leaseholder of Amelia River Golf Course wants to clear-cut 36 acres of pristine riverfront habitat and trees to build a solar farm to generate electricity.
On Tuesday, the city commission will vote on an amendment to the golf course land lease to allow “that the Lessee may construct, install and maintain a solar farm and aeronautical and non-aeronautical hangars on the Leased Premises subject to the approval of the City Commission.”
Local businessman Tom Miller, a partner in Amelia River Holdings, LLC, assumed the lease of the golf course on city-owned airport property in 2019. His proposal also includes the construction of several hangars.
The affected property is on 132 untouched and wild acres of the 310 total acres under lease by the Amelia River Golf Course. The land is located just west of the airport runways along the Amelia River and is not connected to the golf course. There are no paved roads to the parcel.
“Since purchasing the Amelia River Club in November 2019, we have been laser-focused on enhancing the experience of our golf course and property for the benefit of guests and the community. The benefits to the golf course would be tying into green energy, while also being able to benefit the island community with our own locally generated power, while reducing our carbon footprint by reducing older, less green energy alternatives,” Miller said via email.
Amelia River Holdings is partnering with Florida Public Utilities on the solar farm. Miller said FPU is paying the construction costs.
“FPU would develop, construct and own the solar array and use the 5 MW electrical production to feed back into the electrical grid on the island. This would provide a green energy source and provide additional on-island generation to enhance the resiliency of the electrical system for Amelia Island. Expected cost will be approximately $10.5 – $11.9 million,” Miller said.
The solar farm would generate revenues for FPU, Amelia River Holdings and the city.
Opponents of the plan cite clear-cutting 36 acres of trees on a barrier island will have a range of negative ecological and environmental consequences, including soil erosion, habitat loss, increased vulnerability to storms, changes to water quality, and impacts on human activities.
Lyn Pannone, president of the Amelia Tree Conservancy, said, “The primary focus of Amelia Tree Conservancy is to protect the island’s mature trees. The proposed solar farm on 30+ acres of undeveloped, tree-covered land is unacceptable. It is bad for the resiliency of the island, as well as stormwater management — especially in that location.”
A 2019 tree canopy survey conducted by the city placed the loss of tree canopy at 12% and was at 39% overall. Removal of 36 acres of trees would mean another 1% loss of canopy. The city’s comprehensive plan dictates that the city tree canopy should not fall below 37%.
The Land Development Code mandates that a tree survey be conducted on parcels before they are approved for construction.
“As part of our due diligence in advance of any project, the environmental impacts will be assessed. We take environmental stewardship seriously, and we’re committed to finding solutions that are both sustainable and reliable,” Miller said.
Thus far, the solar farm proposal, which is on airport property, has not been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Discussions have occurred with representatives from the Fernandina Municipal Airport regarding the project; airport property is routinely used around the nation to construct solar arrays. The FAA will be involved in the permitting process,” Miller explained.
The city has reached out to Passero & Associates for advice on FAA requirements for the solar farm.
Passero’s Andrew Holesko wrote to City Attorney Tammi Bach, “Here’s an initial list of items that we expect need research, response and approach to respond to the FAA, as the original grantor of the airport land to the City.”
Holesko said the FAA would likely require an extensive survey, as well as a new valuation of the property since the lease went into effect in 1994. That updated valuation could mean that Amelia River Holdings potentially could have to pay well over $1 million per year to lease the property.
Also in play is an in-depth study of wetlands, floodplain, endangered and threatened species and cultural resource/archaeological surveys.
In addition to the solar farm, Miller said several hangars would also be built. “Potential hangars are immediately along the taxiway (closest to the airport) and the net revenue is yet to be determined. Based on the current Lease, the city receives monthly rent on this land and in addition, the city would get an additional percentage of any revenue generated on future hangars or solar,” Miller said.
Miller is a local business owner operating the Water Wheel Cigar Club/store and the Putt-Putt Fun Center.
As to the problem of accessing the property, Miller said, “Access to the area will be approved and arranged by the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport in cooperation with FAA guidelines, utilizing to-be-determined access points that comply with all airport regulations.”
Miller and FPU officials have been meeting with city commissioners and environmentalists about the project.
“We have received support for using solar arrays to produce green electricity and for protecting the environment. This project will provide for perpetual conservation areas; have a net positive impact on the environment; and when coupled with the use of pollinators, plants and other native grasses to stabilize the site, provide habitat for the existing species located on the property,” Miller said.
In 2019, another company, Signature Land, proposed turning the same acreage into one-third hangars and the rest into a Boy Scout facility. That was part of a larger proposal, which failed. Amelia River Holdings subsequently assumed the lease.