Some saw a greener future and economic perks, and some saw a massive eyesore blighting the rural landscape in Butte residents’ backyards.
The Butte-Silver Bow Zoning Board on Thursday made the decisive call, voting down a special use permit to build a gigantic 1,600-acre solar array in south Butte 5-0.
In their justification, Zoning Board members cited the pure size of the array, saying it would undeniably change the landscape of those who live in the Little Basin Creek area. They said the public’s strong opposition carried weight.
Board members said they supported green energy, and could get on board with a smaller version of the proposal in an area less intrusive to people’s way of life.
“It’s just not fair,” board member Tyler Shaffer said, imagining an industrial array of that magnitude in the residential area.
Shaffer, before the vote, recognized the immense effort the project proponents put into planning, then listed several reasons for his position.
“Although this project promises to bring a large number of initial construction jobs to our area that we can all benefit from, I believe the lasting permanent jobs don't necessarily justify the intrusion into the neighbors’ viewshed,” he said.
Board member Garrett Craig went down the line of criteria for a special use permit and said public opinion especially prohibited approval.
“I think that’s been voiced loud and clear,” he said.
The $250 million project to build 700,000 solar panels requires a special use permit because the land, part of the Gozden-McDermott ranch, is not zoned for industrial use. Project planners said it would produce nearly 300 megawatts annually — enough to meet the needs of more than 40,000 family homes.
That would make it one of the top 10 largest solar projects in the country.
Madison River Equity LLC leased the land for the project from John McDermott. The company is a subsidiary of Rick Tabish’s FX Solutions, which constructed the nearby Atlas Power data center used to mine cryptocurrency.
Atlas Power is owned by Kevin Washington, who said in May he would use the array to power his company and planned to buy the solar project after its construction.
Tabish and McDermott said they intend to file an appeal to the decision in district court Friday.
“Our first option was Butte because we're loyal to Butte, but if Butte doesn't want to stand behind us, it's not a big deal, we're going to take the project elsewhere," Tabish said in an interview after the decision, adding that he thinks emotion guided the board’s vote.
“There should be some private property rights,” McDermott added. “Nobody's asked me what I want to do with my property.”
Before the vote, board member Todd Collins said McDermott’s hardship didn’t compare to that of the residents that would be affected, some of them just yards away from where the array would be built.
After the decision, Bonnie Yeo, one of the area residents who opposed the project, said she hopes solar can still find a place in Butte.
“I'm relieved,” she said, “and hopeful that they will try to put the power somewhere else. Something smaller on some of this unused land in a more appropriate place."
Other area residents echoed the sentiment.
“We're all for solar energy,” Carol Lubick said. “There's a way to do it. They're smart people and I'm sure they can come up with a plan.”
The battle of public opinion has raged since Matt Vincent, project consultant and former chief executive for the county, held two open houses for area landowners in May.
On social media and in editorials residents have stood out in support of the project, and others questioned the project’s benefit to Butte.
Many expressed concern for area wildlife, as herds of elk and antelope are common. The project would leave a 1,500-foot wide corridor in the middle of the panels, but disturb a great deal of habitat.
On Thursday, Collins said that land has been important to some residents for a lifetime.
“I'd be lying to you if I was to tell you we didn't all enjoy the open space out there,” he said.
At a June 17 meeting the Zoning Board took official public testimony on the project late into the night.
Planning department staff read letters in support of and against the project, and there were speakers on both sides.
Back in May, when a 5-acre battery storage facility on a mostly vacant 200-acre swath of land in south Butte was proposed, the Zoning Board rejected the proposal, mostly on grounds of resident opposition.
On Thursday, Shaffer said he couldn’t see how the board could stop that project and approve the solar array.
Some in the community saw the project as a bold and necessary step to combat climate change, and a means for Butte to become a technological hub.
While a portion of the power produced would go to run the Atlas Power computing center, the company would conceivably have additional power that it could put onto the grid and sell. Such “green energy” is in high demand across the West as many states race to meet self-imposed deadlines for conversion to power that is not produced burning fossil fuels.
Vincent said the array and the data center expansion would also result in a considerable tax benefit to the county.
Tabish at the June 17 meeting said REC Silicon was potentially interested in using the renewable energy, and envisioned a cooperative relationship with Montana Tech.
Now it’s to court, and possibly back to the drawing board.
After the permit was denied on Thursday, Tabish said the planned expansion of the Atlas Power data center is dependent on the solar array, and that the center may relocate if the board decision isn’t overturned.
He said he hasn’t given up, but had expected the community to get behind the project.
“We're all big boys. Businesses is business and we've got other options," he said.