Bandera landowners push for court intervention on solar farm project

Construction on the solar farm is expected to begin this year and be operational by 2025, according to Pine Gate Renewables

BANDERA, TexasUPDATE 2/8/24: On Monday, a Bandera area judge signed a temporary injunction halting the construction of a large solar farm.

A little over a week after the landowners and the solar company Pine Gate Renewables met again in a crowded courtroom to present each of their cases, Judge Pat Maguire ruled in favor of the landowners.

According to the temporary injunction order, Pine Gate cannot begin clearing trees, grading, or preparing land for the solar project until they have complied with certain requirements.

The project, called Rio Lago Solar, will be on hold until the company gets TCEQ approved construction permits, prepares and implements a stormwater pollution prevention plant, and complies with with all local, state, and federal regulations for the construction of a solar farm.

Both the landowners, the plaintiffs, and the solar company, the defendants, must have mediation before May 1, 2024, according to the court paperwork.

This case will go before a jury on October 22, 2024.

At KSAT 12 News’ request, Kristen McKenzie with Pine Gate Renewables sent the following statement:

“Pine Gate Renewables and Rio Lago Solar are pleased that Judge Maguire’s order generally allows the project to proceed as originally planned.  The order requires some additional precautions during tree felling and construction that we previously committed to and remain committed to.  None of the activities enjoined by the order have been performed at the site and none will be performed until the conditions of the order have been satisfied.  Some neighbors have noticed equipment being moved to the project site in preparation for work once these conditions are met, which is not prohibited by the order.  To reiterate – no activities prohibited by the order have occurred on the Rio Lago solar site.  We remain committed to the Rio Lago Project, the Bandera community, and the regulatory and permitting processes in Texas and look forward to advancing the project in partnership with the community and regulatory and permitting parties.”

UPDATE 1/9/24: On Tuesday, residents from Bandera packed a courtroom as a judge heard from both the plaintiffs and the defense on a proposed temporary injunction over the building of a solar farm.

The defense argued the temporary injunction and existing temporary restraining order were unnecessary because the proposed project was legal.

The prosecution reiterated that their clients did not want the project stopped. However, they wanted assurance that proper protocols would be followed so the community wouldn’t suffer.

After hearing from both sides, Judge Patrick McGuire agreed with both legal teams that the time allotted for Tuesday’s hearing was insufficient, so he continued the hearing until Jan. 29.

Additionally, McGuire extended the temporary restraining order, which was initially issued on Dec. 27. However, due to existing laws, the temporary restraining order could only be extended by an additional 14 days, which would have it expire on Jan. 24.

Following the hearing, Kristen McKenzie with Pine Gate Renewables sent the following statement:

“Pine Gate Renewables appreciated the opportunity to be heard today in the District Court of Bandera County regarding its Rio Lago Solar project. We are grateful for the judge’s willingness to move expeditiously and allow both sides to be heard in this important matter. Pine Gate remains committed to the Rio Lago project and to continuing to collaborate with local stakeholders, landowners, and community leaders to ensure the successful and responsible development of the project.

“Pine Gate wishes to express our sincere gratitude to those community members who participated in numerous discussions which are being incorporated as Pine Gate works to finalize the project design. We believe the project will bring significant benefits to Bandera County and will make an important contribution to help meet Texas’ growing energy demand.”

ORIGINAL STORY: A fight is underway in Bandera over the building of a solar farm.

Pine Gate Renewables, a North Carolina-based company, is leasing thousands of acres to build over a million solar panels.

According to its website, the project will be called Rio Lago Solar.

Landowners upset

Andrew Boger says Bandera is the cowboy capital of the world; it’s his slice of heaven for a quieter pace of life.

He and his wife bought their property in the Texas Hill Country along FM 3240 to step away from the city life and embrace the rural land.

Now Boger is worried their sanctuary will be ruined.

“The complicated thing about the solar panel issue is, is that it’s still pretty new in its inception, and there’s a lot of questions regarding their viability,” Boger said.

Boger’s property and several others butt up against land where thousands of solar panels will be constructed starting this year.

According to Pine Gate Renewables, the company behind the project, the $150 million investment into Bandera County will bring 123 megawatts of clean energy, enough to power 22,800 homes annually.

“Well, we feel like there’s there’s a couple of issues there,” Boger said.

Those issues are laid out in a temporary restraining order filed last month in Bandera.

Boger and the other plaintiffs listed are asking for the court to intervene and make Pine Gate Renewables provide documentation and answer their questions.

The first is what happens if the panels catch fire.

Boger questioned who would be responsible for the costs to repair the damages left behind if there was a fire of some kind.

So when lithium batteries are on fire there’s...there’s not a protocol to put them out. It’s new. Bandera does not have a fire department. It’s a volunteer fire department. I think that’s one of our biggest concerns,” he said.

He and the other landowners listed on the temporary restraining order explain they haven’t seen insurance information or surety bonds.

“If there is some type of major catastrophe. Who pays for that?” Boger questioned. “Is it Bandera County? Is it the solar company? Is that the landowners that lease their property?”

They’re also concerned about water runoff from the solar panels that will flow into drainage ditches, tanks, and creeks.

“Once these two tanks fill up, it flows across. And enters into Mud Creek, into a FEMA flood zone, and then makes its way on down into the Medina River,” Boger said, showing us where water currently flows from other properties onto his when it rains.

This isn’t an unheard of problem; Pine Gates Renewables built a similar solar farm in a small Mississippi community.

Community members told ABC affiliate WTOK last month that rainwater runoff and debris from the project ruined ponds in the area.

“We found from all the other communities, they tried to do something after the project was already up and running and it was too late,” Boger said.

The plaintiffs are asking for 12 plans to be put into place ahead of the Rio Lago Solar project moving forward.

  • A. Water Management Plan
  • B. Hazardous Waste Plan
  • C. Hazardous Chemicals Plan
  • D. Sampling Plan
  • E. Vegetative Management Plan
  • F. Stormwater Management Plan
  • G. Erosion Control Plan
  • H. Extreme Weather Management Plan
  • I. Fire Response Plan
  • J. Karst Geotechnical Engineering Report.
  • K. Integrated Pest Management Plan

Solar farm construction

According to an article on the Pivot Energy website about solar farm land requirements, “the flatter a site is, the better it will be for solar development. However, developers have been able to construct projects on sites with a gentle grade and even rolling hills.”

Once a project is constructed, it will need to connect directly to distribution lines to transfer the energy from the solar facility to the energy grid, which in this case would be ERCOT.

Bandera Electric Cooperative is the distribution service provider in that area. When asked about the project, the general counsel for BEC gave background information.

“Bandera Electric Cooperative, Inc. is a distribution service provider and a transmission service provider under Texas law and regulations enforced by the Public Utilities Commission of Texas. As a transmission service provider, Texas law requires Bandera Electric Cooperative to interconnect its facilities with new generating sources and construct facilities needed for such an interconnection. See 25 Tex. Admin. Code Section 25.191(d)(3).”

John Padalino, General Counsel & Chief Administrative Officer, Bandera Electric Cooperative, Inc.

The general counsel then continued on stating that Bandera Electric would fully comply with the law and directed further questions to Pine Gate and ERCOT.

Boger suspects a big reason why Pine Gate Renewables chose the area of Bandera was the already available utility infrastructure.

The Pine Gate Renewables webpage has a tab indicating why the area was chosen for the Rio Lago Solar project called “siting process fact sheet.” However, when selected, the page gives you an error and will not open.

Pine Gate Renewables siting process fact sheet (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

This isn’t the first time there’s been pushback on the solar build in Bandera. The Bandera Bulletin reported in February 2022 that Bandera ISD unanimously voted against the solar farm’s tax abatement application.

The Bandera Bulletin reported,” By voting against the abatement, Bandera ISD loses approximately $50,000 a year in payments spread over ten to twelve years amounting to about $500,000 total.”

“Once they were turned down for public funding, they pretty much started privately planning without any oversight, in my opinion,” he said.

Boger says, ultimately, they’re not trying to stop the project from happening, but they’d like their concerns addressed and assured that this won’t be harmful to the rural sanctuary they call home.

“We’re hoping that the state, the county, the court will look at this and begin to put protocols in place that will protect people and protect the counties,” Boger said.

“Pine Gate Renewables is aware of the complaint related to Rio Lago Solar and remains committed to the project’s development and construction. However, the company does not discuss ongoing legal matters.”

Kristen McKenzie, Pine Gate Renewables

A judge in Bandera will hear from Pine Gate Renewables and the plaintiffs listed on the temporary restraining order in court on Tuesday to decide on a temporary injunction.

If granted, the project will be halted until Pine Gate Renewables and the co-defendants listed can “prove to this court’s satisfaction that the environmental and operational concerns have been addressed.”

Read more reporting on the KSAT Investigates page.

About the Authors

Leigh Waldman is an investigative reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.

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