Landowners claim solar company is breaking court order to halt construction of Bandera solar farm

On Feb. 7, a Bandera judge signed a temporary injunction preventing construction from moving forward without regulatory plans in place

BANDERA COUNTY, TexasUPDATE 4/3/24: Almost a month after a Bandera judge signed a temporary injunction preventing construction on a large solar project, he’s now ruling that order must be followed.

According to court records, on March 27, 2024, Judge Pat Maguire heard a motion from the landowners’ council for contempt and a request for emergency relief.

In his ruling, Maguire ordered Pine Gate Renewables, LLC and Rio Lago Solar, LLC to be sanctioned $10,000. However, that payment will not be required if a list of conditions is met.

  1. Alan Stanton, PE, CFM, shall be allowed access to the leased solar farm properties at all reasonable times to inspect the implementation of any and all SWPPPs;
  2. There shall be no further violations of any existing or subsequent SWPPPs by Defendants; and
  3. There shall be no further violations of the Temporary Injunction Order by Defendants.

If those conditions aren’t met, the defendants listed in the lawsuit will be required to pay the $10,000 sanctions immediately to the plaintiffs.

The court found that we had not fully complied with our stormwater management plan for the project. These incidents were inadvertent and, as reflected in the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s report on its inspection of the site, limited and inconsequential. As envisioned by our stormwater management plan, these types of incidents can occur in the course of any large development project, which is why we have best management practices in place to protect water quality. We take compliance seriously and will adhere with the court’s directive that we redouble our efforts to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future. We welcome oversight of our work on the site by Plaintiff’s engineer, as required by the court’s order.

Kristen McKenzie, Pine Gate Renewables

A fight is continuing in Bandera County over the construction 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.

Court battle

In January, the landowners surrounding the Rio Lago Solar Project site met before 198th District Court Judge Pat Maguire with their lawyers to argue why the proposed project would harm their properties.

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.

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

Each side brought in its own set of experts.

On Feb. 7, Judge Maguire signed a temporary injunction, halting the construction of the solar farm until certain parameters are met by Pine Gate Renewables.

The following are those parameters:

  1. Defendants shall obtain a TCEQ-approved Construction General Permit.
  2. Defendants shall prepare and implement a TCEQ-approved Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plant (SWPPP).
  3. Defendants shall prepare and implement further TCEQ-approved SWPPPs prior to any soil-disturbing activities, including grubbing the soil, stump removal, removal of rootballs, stripping the soil and grading the soil.
  4. Defendants shall prepare and implement further-TCEQ-approved SWPPPs prior to commencing each successive phase of solar farm construction.
  5. Defendants are prohibited from timbering or felling trees in any flood plain or flood hazard area.
  6. Defendants shall comply with all local, state, and federal laws and regulations in the construction of the solar farm.

Both parties will need to meet for mediation before May 1, 2024, and a jury trial is currently set for October 22, 2024, at 9 a.m., according to court records.

Landowners vs solar company

“Day one, we had trespassing, we had property damage. And now we’re building a secondary road against a court order, in my opinion. And so, we’re starting off on the wrong foot,” said Andrew Boger, a landowner named in the court records.

Despite the temporary injunction explicitly preventing Pine Gate Renewables from preparing land for its proposed solar project, our KSAT drone caught movement on the property.

“There’s a road being built this morning,” Boger said.

Kristen McKenzie, the director of government and external affairs for Pine Gate Renewables, sent a statement in response to work happening on the land they’re leasing.

“Pine Gate has yet to remove any trees on the property. Pre-construction work has begun on the project in compliance with the court order – this work includes staging equipment and surveying for the installation of silt fencing. Project-specific timbering is expected to begin within the week after best management practices (BMPs) are installed as part of the overall timbering plan. The road-grading and associated timbering activity that has been reported is unrelated to the Rio Lago Solar Project and is not being performed by or on behalf of Pine Gate or the Rio Lago Solar Project.”

Kristen McKenzie, Pine Gate Renewables

Boger and other neighbors have been following the movement on the property closely, often taking videos of equipment on the move and calling local law enforcement to respond to what they allege is a blatant disregard for a court order.

Boger believes the solar company is not being honest or transparent about what its plans are for the thousands of acres of land its leasing and for the construction of over a million solar panels.

“I think a solid set of engineering plans just presented to the agencies would have made this all go away,” he said.

Sandra Nevels’ property is surrounded by the land destined to be used for the solar project on three sides. She’s also one of the plaintiffs listed in the suit alongside Boger.

The day the temporary injunction was signed by the judge, Nevels recorded a video of the company bringing heavy machinery onto the property.

“Felt like they weren’t, you know, abiding by the law. So what makes me think that they’re going to do it right?” Nevels questioned.

The Bandera County Sheriff’s Office was called to the property that day.

According to law enforcement records, landowner Jeff Nanos did not want the company using his gate or his easement road for access to the property.

Nanos filed a report for trespassing. In it, he states the use of the easement road is exclusively permitted outside of his use for a nearby landowner, and the solar company did not have permission to access it.

McKenzie sent a statement regarding the report.

“The company has not accessed public or private land without permission. The use of the road was done with the easement holder’s approval.”

Kristen McKenzie, Pine Gate Renewables

Nevels says she believes the equipment was brought to the land because the company is doing work that it is not allowed to do yet, per the court’s latest ruling.

“That equipment costs money to have it just sitting there. It was crazy,” Nevels said.

KSAT 12 News stopped by the Bandera County Engineer, Permits, and Inspections Department. It confirmed a development permit was issued to Pine Gate Renewables for the Rio Lago Solar Project site.

County engineer Dieter Warner didn’t want to go on camera but sat down to speak about the permitting process.

Warner gave us a copy of what the permit application looks like. He explained not much can be done on his end to stop the issuance if the company meets the permitting requirements.

KSAT Investigates reporter Leigh Waldman asked Warner if he had been presented with any construction or water runoff prevention plans to apply for the permits.

“No, but I’ve been asking for it for almost a year,” Warner said. He went on to explain that he’s seen a preliminary plan, but not a final plan.

Warner also explained that the company will need to follow state and federal requirements throughout the building process in order to ensure it is done properly.

When asked about the permit, McKenzie sent a statement.

“The permit was obtained to comply with local requirements. The company has fulfilled the District Court of Bandera County’s requirements, and pre-construction of the Rio Lago Solar Project has begun in compliance with the Court Order.”

Kristen McKenzie, Pine Gate Renewables

“I’m worried for our community that they’re just going to walk over us,” Nevels said.

“I believe now this (is) becoming a much larger issue than just the solar field in Bandera. I think it’s becoming a county issue for the counties of Texas,” Boger said.

Requests by KSAT for an interview with Pine Gate Renewables have been ignored.

As our crew was leaving the property next to the Rio Lago Solar site, the Bandera County Sheriff’s Office was called out because the people on the Pine Gate property were upset about our drone flying overhead.

“Good job there, lady,” one man said as we recorded video driving away.

Flying drones over property is not illegal or prohibited per the Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

The lawyer representing the landowners filed a motion for Pine Gate Renewables and its attorneys to be held in contempt of court for failure to comply with the temporary injunction. They’re asking the court to step in and issue additional orders.

At this point, the judge has called for an emergency hearing in March.

The lawyer also filed an emergency motion to enforce the temporary injunction with the court on Feb. 22.

Court records allege the defense, Pine Gate Renewables, “blatantly failed and refused to comply” with the temporary injunction and is asking the court to issue an emergency order enjoining the defendants from any further construction or activities on the property.

The motion continues asking that a third-party compliance officer be appointed and for the defense to allow the plaintiff’s expert, a civil engineer, to have access to the leased property.

Read more reporting on the KSAT Investigates page.

About the Authors

Leigh Waldman is a news 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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