Conservation Land Faces New Development Pressures Deep In Rural Georgia

This week’s Courier Herald column

Senator Jon Ossoff made news a few weeks ago, backing federal efforts via the Land and Water Conservation Fund to protect two sections of forest land in Northwest Georgia.  As reported by Dave Williams of the Capitol Beat News Service, Senator Ossoff’s letter to the Forest Service noted the land’s proximity to urban centers put the tracts at risk to be developed into non-forest uses.  “Thus, it is urgent that these lands be secured via the LWCF.”

Georgia is a rapidly growing state, and that growth is no longer contained within the sprawling Atlanta region.  This growth, and the development demands that come with it, place land currently held for forests and farms at risk for development into uses that would provide landowners even higher returns.

Georgia has a longstanding program to help incentivize landowners to keep land used for agriculture, forestry, or other environmentally sensitive purposes from seeking returns that come with conversion to other uses.  The state’s Conservation Use Valuation Assessment (CUVA) program allows a significant reduction in assessed valuations for landowners that commit to non-development of their property for a ten-year period. 

This dramatically lowers the property taxes on the property for a decade.  If the landowner decides to break the covenant early, they are required to pay back double the amount of tax abatement they were granted, plus interest, as a penalty.

There’s a new-ish form of land conversion that is causing concern in the most rural parts of Georgia – those areas that have been among the last to experience the economic and population growth that are top of mind with conservationists.  It’s also a battle that splits conservation activist groups because it pits differing environmental goals against each other.

The emergence of large-scale solar farms as a viable source of power generation has moved solar from a novelty feature to mainstream component of Georgia’s energy mix.  The state is already the 7th largest producer of solar energy in the country.  Several factors will dramatically increase solar production in the state – and the amount of land that will be needed to meet the demand.

The Inflation Reduction Act extended and added new incentives to adopt solar power, while large commercial customers are demanding clean energy to meet their ESG pledges.  With costs low and demand high, utilities are scrambling to add new solar capacity. 

Georgia Power’s recently approved Integrated Resources Plan which sets their long term generating goals indicates that the utility will add 2,300 Megawatts of renewable energy generating capacity in the next 3 years alone, virtually all of which will be from solar.  For comparison, that the same generating capacity of both new units of nuclear plant Vogtle, which have been under construction since 2013. 

Farmers and those holding tracts of slow growing timber are suddenly fielding offers for long term leases or purchases of their property from large scale solar operators, presenting an opportunity to convert their use.  Those holding their tracts in Georgia’s CUVA program have an exemption of the conversion of use is to a solar project.

While not as direct as the pressures from growing metro areas as the forest land Senator Ossoff is working to protect, the effect in loss of land to commercial use is the same.  To illustrate this, we’ll look at an article from where reporter Catherine Clifford has been running a series using the “our troubled grid” narrative, which conflates largely self-inflicted local decisions as a premise to nationalize power grids that are mostly regulated by states.

In her article published February 17th titled “Why America’s outdated energy grid is a climate problem”, she gets to the heart of why rural economies that depend on farming and timber should be worried about the conversion of use to clean energy.  The article explains that the current grid has fossil fuel burning electricity generating sources close to urban areas, but new transmission lines will be needed for clean energy.

The quiet part is said out loud in this sentence: “Clean energy sources, like wind and solar, do not release greenhouse gas emissions, but the energy generated must be moved from where the wind and sun are strongest to where the electricity is actually used.” The position here is that land in rural areas will be increasingly used to produce electricity for urban areas.  Federal and state incentive dollars are backing this conversion with billions of tax revenues.

State Representative David Knight (R-Griffin) has sponsored House Bill 449, which would close the loophole and end the exemption for conversion of land for industrial solar uses.  It would in not bar solar projects, it would merely require the same payment of back taxes and penalties – money that would go to the local governments which collect the taxes. 

Solar power generation presents a great economic opportunity in addition to helping achieve climate goals.  The state needs to be honest as we move forward on this path, and calculate what incentives we are providing, and what the long term costs will be.

Development pressures come in many forms.  In the new economy, they no longer need be next door.  The result, whether from those who would build houses or factories or solar farms is the same:  Once land is converted to a use with a return on investment higher than that offered by farming or timber, that land is rarely if ever converted back.  A sense of urgency is required here, too.

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