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Walton farm land used to 'grow' a different kind of crop

SOCIAL CIRCLE -- On Dec. 19, 1935, Robert Simons purchased 205 acres of land in Social Circle with the expressed desire to own and operate a cotton farm.

Seventy-six years later to the day, Simons' grandson Steve Ivey reached an agreement with the Georgia Power Company to provide energy from a proposed solar farm to be located on that same 205 acres.

On Dec. 6, the Walton County Board of Commissioners approved a zoning request to pave the way for Ivey, a music producer, composer and distributor near Nashville, Tenn., to develop his grandfather's acreage -- known as Simon Solar Farm and located on Social Circle Fairplay Road, a few miles outside the city limits -- into what he said will be the biggest solar farm in the Southeast.

"Over the last six years, I'd been looking at different options to sell the property or pursue other types of farming and other various things," Ivey said on Thursday afternoon. "I was looking at options on how to heat water at my house and ran across information about solar (energy), and I'm in the music business and I like technical things, so I just got into researching solar and came up with the idea for the solar farm."

Simon Solar Farm is one of two such entities in Walton County. The first solar farm, owned by Marietta-based DirectSun Solar Energy and Technology, is located north of Monroe.

Ivey, who earned a bachelor's degree in music and a master's in marketing from Mercer and has run his own music company since the tender age of 20, said now that he's cleared the hurdles of regulatory red tape, he hopes to fast track the initiative, beginning construction in 2012 and producing energy -- much of which will be purchased by Georgia Power -- by 2013.

"We just got the Power Purchase Agreement approved for a period of 20 years with Georgia Power," said Ivey. "Everything has been approved by Walton County and Georgia Power and our current time to go online is June 1, 2015; however, we are working towards reaching that goal earlier. My original goal was to start construction in 2012 and get online in 2013. We're working toward that. It's up to the Public Service Commission."

The project -- which is expected to cost some $85 million to build -- will include thousands of solar panels and dozens of transformers and will feed a Georgia Power substation already located on the property. Ivey sees a hint of irony when he thinks about his grandfather's devotion to the acreage.

"He bought and sold all kinds of land around the Atlanta area, but this particular farm was very special to him, I guess because he cotton farmed it during the Depression and it got him through that era," Ivey said of his grandfather. "I would love for him to know this is going on, especially the fact we'll be using the power station that was put on the land in 1972. He'd be thrilled to know we're making use of something he wasn't extremely happy about at the time."

Ivey, who owns and operates IMI Music in Nashville, added that having the substation on the property was one of the factors that guided him when trying to figure out what to do with the land. Other options included selling the land -- which is now zoned agricultural with conditional use -- for residential development and something besides cotton farming.

"Georgia Power set up a substation on the property, and the combination of having land that's pretty much cleared already and a substation, I was able to finance this project all the way through to now. That combination, and the idea, is really what it took to make all this happen."

Ivey said the energy created and collected at Simon Solar Farm could annually provide power to some 7,000 homes. He added that it may be difficult for passersby to discern what's happening on the property.

"We'll have a large berm around the perimeter so you won't be able to see it from the road and it will sit quietly," he said.

A veteran of the music industry where he runs a Grammy Award-nominated company, Ivey has worked with the likes of Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Aaron Neville, Bill Anderson and Vince Gill and has placed music in Walmart, Best Buy and Dollar General stores, as well as on the Weather Channel and other television networks.

Ivey, who also plans to develop a solar energy educational component in association with a nearby university, said he thinks his grandfather -- who died in the mid-1990s at the age of 87 -- would enjoy seeing how his Social Circle acreage has developed and progressed.

"I've said many times I wish my granddaddy would know about this," he said. "He'd be thrilled to death to know this is going on. My grandfather was very much a part of my entrepreneurial spirit because he was the kind of guy who'd get up at 5 a.m. to farm cotton, then go to work at the railway station and then after work he was transporting goods between Atlanta and Social Circle. He was a hard-working guy, but he was also very much a fun-loving guy."