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$100 million plant in Screven County's future?

Some Screven County officials would like to see a $100 million biomass power plant constructed in the industrial park, but a “jillion” things would have to fall into place before the project could be built.

The county’s planning and zoning board voted 3-2 Thursday to recommend that county commissioners change the zoning law to allow an electric power plant up to 30 megawatts as a permitted use in the park. They also recommended that a plant making wood pellets be allowed as a permitted use in the park.

A private company that builds and operates power plants in nine states and several foreign countries is considering building a power plant that would be fueled by wood pellets. The company also is considering building a plant that would make the wood pellets at the same site.

Screven County is one of a number of locations the company is considering nationwide, said Gayle Boykin, director of the Screven County Development Authority.

Officials from the county and the City of Sylvania have been talking with the company about the project since February, she said. Usually, such negotiations are done in secret because that’s what potential investors demand. Details about this project have become public knowledge because of the zoning issue.

The county commission is scheduled to have a public hearing and consider the zoning change at its meeting at 7 p.m. on June 23 at the county courthouse.

“There’s a jillion ways for it to fail even if we do this,” said Tommy Pace, vice chairman of the planning and zoning board. “It’s going to go through a lot of hoops before it gets approved, finally.”

If the county commissioners decide not to change the zoning ordinance, the company would have to go through a public hearing for a conditional use to build the plant – something it isn’t willing to do. Instead, the company would go to another location where it wouldn’t have to go through so many hoops -- putting in time, effort and expense for an uncertain outcome.

“You had an applicant say I won’t consider the county if it’s going to involve a public hearing,” said Hubert Reeves III, county attorney. “We won’t come.”

Bobby Smith, a member of the planning and zoning board, said he expects the industrial development authority to have enough gumption to decide whether the project would be a good one for the community. “The IDA and the general public will weigh in on it,” Smith said.

Pace, Smith and board member Andy Durrence voted for the change. The chairman of the planning and zoning board, Emerson Scott, and board member Charles Parker voted against it.

The size of the plant could range from 25 megawatts to 60 megawatts, but zoning board members said their recommendation to allow up to 30 megawatts should get things started.

Boykin said the company likely would spend $100 million to build the plant, which would provide 25 to 30 “excellent” jobs. Up to 200 people would be employed during construction.

Farmers within a 50-mile radius would be asked to provide wood to power the plant. Truckers also might get more work bringing in supplies, although some of the material might go by rail. And the City of Sylvania would make money from selling wastewater to operate the plant.

Eventually, the plant would pay property taxes, too, Boykin said. Frequently, such companies request a break on taxes at the beginning of the project. “That’s what they expect,” she said. “They probably would request no property taxes for a number of years.”

If Screven County were chosen for the project, it would be four years before it could begin production – one year for the permitting process and three years for construction.

Another benefit would be announcing to the world in a very visible way that Screven County welcomes business. The plant would take 20 to 50 acres of the 400-acre industrial park, leaving plenty of room for other industry, Boykin said.

Boykin said she hopes county officials continue to pave the way for the potential project. “The development authority needs the support of planning and zoning and the board of commissioners to keep us in the running for this project,” she said.