One morning in October, Chris Kalejta woke up before dawn to go deer hunting, but it looked as if the sun was already up.
“I thought I had overslept,” he said.
When he saw that it was 5:30 a.m. but with a bright glow across the sky, his next thought was that a house was on fire. He was about to dial 911 when he hesitated. The light looked too steady to be from a fire.
Soon he and the rest of his neighbors who live around the new Pure Flavor greenhouse in Peach County realized the light was coming from there. That was their first introduction to the powerful high pressure sodium grow lights that the 25-acre complex uses to make up for less sun in late fall and winter.
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“It was like shock and awe for anybody around here,” Kalejta said. “It was mass confusion. They didn’t know what was going on.”
The high-tech greenhouse, announced in August, 2017, grows tomatoes and cucumbers year around.
Kalejta and others who live around Pure Flavor, on Ga. 96 near Lane Southern Orchards peach packing house, say the lights have disrupted their sleep, had roosters crowing at 2 a.m., and lowered their property values.
The lights are so bright that Ken Day, who lives more than two miles away, said he can read a newspaper in his yard in the dead of night. He has been one of the leaders of a group called Peach County Dark Skies that has been seeking a solution to the issue.
Chris Veillion, company spokesman for Pure Flavor, said the company is exploring new technologies to see if anything can be done to help the issue.
“We are doing all that we can,” Veillion said. “We want to be great neighbors. We want to be able to support the community as much as possible.”
About 50 people came to a recent Peach County Commission meeting to protest the greenhouse. Commission Chairman Martin Moseley began by saying the county had gotten a letter threatening a lawsuit over the situation. Due to the pending litigation, he said, the commissioners would not discuss the issue.
The Telegraph obtained a copy of the letter in an open records request. The letter is from Macon attorney J. Steven Bloodworth, representing Thomas J. Kempton, who lives on Matthews Road next to the greenhouse. The letter states that the lights come on at 1 a.m. every day.
“In effect, the lights constitute a trespass, continuing nuisance and inverse condemnation of said property,” the letter states.
It states that the Peach County Building and Licensing Department approved the construction, and seeks $250,000 in damages.
Meeting gets heated
On Feb. 12, about 50 Pure Flavor neighbors for the third time attended a Peach County Commission meeting to voice their opposition. The previous meetings had been civil, Day said, but this time anger boiled over.
Day and Mike Cantrell acted as spokesmen for the group, and began by asking for the board to pass a motion not to approve additional construction for Pure Flavor until the issue is resolved. The company plans to build two more greenhouses of 25-acres each..
Moseley said the board would take it under consideration, but that there wouldn’t be a vote that night.
Day also asked the board to investigate a potential conflict of interest regarding B.J. Walker, director of the Development Authority of Peach County. A permit issued by the county shows that Pure Flavor contracted with J.B. Walker Construction, owned by B.J. Walker’s brother, to build migrant housing on the Pure Flavor property. The permit estimates the cost at $600,000.
B.J. Walker was not at the commission meeting, but in a later interview with The Telegraph denied any conflict of interest. He said Pure Flavor asked for possible contractors for the migrant housing as well as other elements of the project. He sent them contact information for his brother’s company and other local contractors, he said, and he had no part in the selection.
“There’s no conflict, as far as I’m concerned,” Walker said.
Residents also criticized the transparency and the due diligence of the commission and the development authority in recruiting Pure Flavor. They said they knew nothing about it until a sign when up on the property that it was coming.
Walker said there was no secrecy beyond the common practice of keeping the name of an industry confidential during the recruitment process. He said Pure Flavor representatives made a presentation at a county commission meeting before construction of the greenhouse started.
He also said the company was upfront about the lighting, and in fact an electrical substation had to be installed to handle the power load. But Walker said he did not anticipate the public outcry over it.
He said the county is working with the company to find a solution but it’s not clear yet what that might be.
The greenhouse has side curtains which residents say helps some, but they said most of the light comes from the top. It’s especially bad, they said, on an overcast night when the light reflects off the clouds.
Pure Flavor representative speaks
Pure Flavor is a brand of Pure Hothouse Foods, based in Canada, where it has its only other greenhouse.
Neighbors will be getting a respite soon, at least for a few months. Veillion, the company spokesman said, that by late March to early April the lights will longer be needed until late fall.
The greenhouse currently employs approximately 120 people, Veillion said, and expects to have about 200 after the other two greenhouses are built. He did not know when that might happen.
He denied claims by the neighbors that Pure Flavor has hired mostly migrant workers. He said the on-site housing was built as “Plan B” if there aren’t enough qualified local workers to apply. The housing is required for the federal H-2A program, in which agricultural operations can bring workers from Mexico if there isn’t enough local labor to fill the jobs.
He said there are currently some H-2A workers hired, but he declined to give a breakdown or to say whether the majority are local or migrants.
“I would say we have a healthy balance,” he said.
Veillion said the greenhouse is the only one like it in Georgia.