Who would have thought this day would come after such an inauspicious beginning. It was November 3, 2003 when residents in Richardson Estates in southern Bibb County, just north of Robins Air Force Base, learned of a Sept. 19 letter from then Bibb County Commission Chairman Tommy Olmstead to county planning and zoning officials that laid out a restriction for their community that would have prevented residential growth — and prevented them from adding to their current residences or rebuilding if their homes were ever destroyed.
The reason? These homes sat in an encroachment zone near the runway at Robins Air Force Base and officials thought the zoning measure would help the base address the issue during the next round of BRAC, or the base realignment and closure process, due in 2005.
Residents found out about the possible rezoning on Sunday and the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting to make that decision was on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Residents supported the base, but they were upset. Nary a word had been said to them before the story broke in this newspaper. Olmstead caught most of the flak, but in fact, his position was supported by other Middle Georgia leaders who then fell silent.
The encroachment issue is a thing of the past now. Property owners have been compensated and last week it was announced that Georgia Power is planning to build a 139-megawatt solar generating facility in the encroachment area, an allowable use of the land. The Georgia Public Service Commission approved the project Tuesday.
This is a win-win on several different levels. It’s a $200 million project and will be one of the largest solar farms in the state using 870 acres that, because the land is in the encroachment zone, has limited use. The solar array will connect directly to a substation at Robins and have the capability to power the entire base in case of a grid outage. Georgia Power will use the land, owned by the Central Georgia Joint Development Authority, part of the Middle Georgia Regional Commission at no cost and the owners won’t have to maintain the property — and the utility will pay property taxes over the life of the project.
And finally, there is a reason most of the elected leaders, Houston County Chairman Tommy Stalnaker, Macon-Bibb Mayor Robert Reichert, all three mayors in Houston County, Fort Valley Mayor Barbara Williams and Jones County Commission Chairman Chris Weidner were celebrating at the Museum of Aviation following the PSC approval. This partnership makes Robins Air Force Base stronger in the face of the next BRAC whenever it happens.
One of the military’s biggest initiatives has been toward energy efficiency and the two other Air Logistic Centers, Hill Air Force Base in Utah and Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma are in a race. Hill has had a solar array since 2009. At the time of its construction it was the largest in the state. The U.S. Air Force announced in late March that it was going to invest $243 million in facility modernization at Tinker Air Force Base. That project is expected to reduce energy consumption by 23 percent and save $20.5 million in energy and operational costs annually.
With the addition of the Georgia Power owned and operated array just north of Robins, connected directly to the base, Robins stays in the game and can directly compete with other military installations. It has been a state effort with Georgia Power as a partner to, in the words of PSC Commissioner Tim Echols, to “BRAC-proof” Georgia’s military installations. Georgia Power has developed other solar projects on military bases at Fort Benning and Fort Gordon.
It took the hard work of many people, some who are no longer with us, such as former Bibb County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, who helped win the trust of residents in Richardson Estates, before the buy back process could gain its footing. As Chairman Stalnaker said, “None of us had the idea when this process started that we would be here today celebrating the project that we are celebrating.”