|By DOTTY NIST|
By mid-May 2021, Walton County will be required to respond to a lawsuit filed by Gulf Power in connection with the county’s denial of the power company’s proposal for a solar energy facility in north Walton County.
The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) had approved a final order of denial for the proposal, known as the Chautauqua Energy Facility, in a 3-2 vote on Jan. 26. The final order was recorded on Jan. 29.
The solar facility would have been Walton County’s first, and would have provided for solar panels to be placed on the bulk of the 867-acre project site in order to convert sunlight to electricity.
On Feb. 26, one month after the BCC approval of the final order denying the project, Gulf Power filed a lawsuit in Walton County Circuit Court seeking to have the court “quash” or negate the county order of denial—and “remand” or send back the project to the BCC, so that the solar facility proposal could be reconsidered “consistent with this Court’s decision.” The lawsuit was in the form of a Petition for Writ of Certiorari.
In the petition, Gulf Power had maintained that Walton County had departed from essential requirements of law in the matter and that the county’s decision had not been supported by competent substantial evidence.
On March 16, an order by Walton County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey E. Lewis, presiding judge in the case, was filed, requiring Walton County to “serve a written response to the Petition…” within 60 days of the date of service of the judge’s order.
Judge Lewis also indicated that the court’s review of the petition would be limited to whether the county had followed due process, had observed essential requirements of law with its administrative proceeding, and whether the county’s administrative findings and judgment were supported by competent substantial evidence.
“The circuit court is not permitted to reweigh the evidence presented to the administrative board,” Judge Lewis wrote.
More recent filings in connection with the lawsuit began with an April 16 motion by Herman Walker, owner of the 867-acre property that Gulf Power had agreed to purchase for the solar facility contingent on Walton County approval of the development, according to the motion.
In the motion, Walker requested that the court allow him to file an “amicus curaie brief” in the case, also known as a “friend of the court” brief.
Walker argued, in part, that, with the brief, he would be able to “assist the court in the disposition of this matter by addressing how Walton County’s decision personally affects him…and how Walton County’s decision sets a precedent which would affect all similar property owners in Walton County, in a negative manner.”
Walton County objected in writing to the filing of such a brief, and on April 21 Judge Lewis issued an order denying Walker’s motion to file the brief.
Among reasons stated for the denial were that the motion was that it was “untimely” and would have been required to be filed not more than 10 days after Gulf Power’s Feb. 26 filing of the original lawsuit.
Judge Lewis also found that Walker’s motion appeared to “acknowledge an intent to raise issues in an amicus brief that are not allowed,” considering the limited review that the court is permitted in connection with the petition.
In an action separate from the Gulf Power petition, in mid-April Walker notified the BCC by letter of a claim he would be filing against Walton County under the Bert Harris Act in the amount of $7.54 million in connection with Walton County’s denial of the solar facility, unless the county reverses the final order of denial for the solar facility. According to the letter, the claim would be filed within 90 days unless there were a reversal of the denial.
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