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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Sims, Journal staff

Commission agrees to send solar regulations back to planning commission

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

Opponents of allowing solar farms in Linn County successfully pushed the Linn County Commission to ask the county planning commission to revisit solar zoning regulations on Monday, Oct. 2. (Screen capture/Linn County Live Stream)

By Charlene Sims, Journal staff

MOUND CITY – At the Monday, Oct. 2, Linn County Commission meeting, an hour was spent on solar discussion, mostly from the audience talking two or more at a time and not into the microphone on the podium. At the end of the meeting characterized by audience members speaking freely and often several at a time, the commission agreed to send solar zoning regulations back to the planning board for review.

The subject started out calmly with County Counselor Gary Thompson saying that, unfortunately, the perception of some people in the audience that some or all of the county employees and elected officials have their minds made up about what ought to be and what not ought to be, and that is not the case.

Thompson said that the commission was committed to this process being an open process. And to getting people involved, both understanding the process and making input into the process.

As a result, the commissioners have discussed and are open to having a public meeting as Danny mentioned a couple of weeks ago or last week. This would be a public meeting in the evening so more people can attend. It would be specifically aimed at educating everyone about the conditional-use permit process and what the solar regulations are. It would be a detailed look at the process.

Thompson said people are expressing their concerns about two separate issues. One of those is people expressing concern about the process and their input, and then really separate from that are just concerns about the presence of solar farms in the county. And those are separate issues.

And so this first educational forum would focus on the process, what the regulations say, how it works, how people can get involved, what kind of input citizens can have, he said. It would be aimed at trying to make sure that everybody is talking in the same language and understanding the same steps of the process. This would be the primary step commissioners would take prior to and after an application being submitted.

Once an application is submitted of any kind, there would then within a very short time do another open forum on that application, Thompson said. This would be an open public forum to talk about that application and what people think should be provided as conditions if it the application was approved or reasons for not approving the application.

Keep in mind that the commissioners need to make findings about everything that they do, he said, adding that it would be helpful for the public to provide them with input on those findings.

Thompson said there would be spokespeople to answer questions. He said that they would prefer that those questions be in writing ahead of time so they can be prepared for them. He added that some of people attending meetings have been doing a great job of submitting questions to the commission over the last couple of weeks, commissioners have been getting some good written questions.

Commissioner Jason Hightower said that the commission could deny an application for a conditional use permit as long as it had the same findings that the county has to ban it in the zoning regulations as well.

Solar opponent Emily Thies said that the commissioners take great care when they are talking about roads and everybody is courteous but when her group presents information that they have the commissioners don’t listen to them. We just want the same courtesy is the reason we wanted the public hearing.

Ali Hamilton said that people from the group that opposes solar farms have been denied the ability to get on the agenda. She indicated she had been singled out in being denied an opportunity to speak.

She told Thompson that he cut her off at the planning and zoning commission meeting in September.

Thompson replied that she was on the agenda for a limited time.

Without coming up to the podium to speak, Hamilton from her seat kept arguing with Thompson.

McCullough said that they were trying to move forward and set up a meeting, and let’s get it done.

One of the solar opponents in the audience asked if their experts could speak.

Hightower said he did not have a problem with experts speaking. He said he did have a problem if their presentation included misinformation.

Even though the meeting started out being orderly, it soon became rowdy with two or more people from the audience speaking at once and interrupting Thompson as he tried to explain the process.

At this point in the meeting, Commissioner Jim Johnson asked a question not pertaining to the planned public hearings and seemed to encourage the unrest by bringing up his confusion about a letter of representation that was a routine business practice for setting up a contract with an attorney.

First, he questioned what “attorney-client privilege confidential” meant. He said that he did not understand why he was not able to show this letter to others.

Thompson explained that attorney-client privilege protected the confidentiality of the relationship between the parties in the letter or contract.

Johnson said the letter from Trish Voth, an attorney specializing in solar issues, was dated Sept. 5. However, in that letter that Voth wrote that she was pleased to be asked to serve as counsel for Linn County. He pointed out that the commission did not vote to retain her until Sept. 18.

Thompson clarified that when the commission first met on Sept. 5 with Voth, they asked him to bring a letter of representation from Voth and that is what he did.

Johnson said they were told not to give out the letter, and yet it went out to the public last night.

A version of that letter went out with redactions, said Thompson.

“That concerns me that we are told not to tell anybody and then it shows up to the public,” said Johnson.

Thompson repeated that the version of the letter that Johnson saw was not the letter with redaction that went out to the public.

“It confuses me what happened,” said Johnson.

Then Johnson asked why was it given out to everyone later. Both Thompson and County Clerk David Lamb tried to explain to Johnson that, after contacting Trish Voth about information, she sent a redacted copy of the confidential letter so it could shared with the public.

Sherri Gentry, a member of the anti-solar group, said she had asked for any and all records on Monday, Sept. 25 and billable hours for Voth from County Clerk David Lamb. She received a reply from Lamb telling her that the county had not received any bills yet.

Johnson then asked Thompson why Planning and Zoning Director Darin Wilson sat in on the first meeting with Voth and then Public Works Director Shaun West sat in on the next meeting.

“What was the reasoning for that?” asked Johnson.

Thompson explained that Wilson would be the contact person with Voth and West was also involved because he was the supervisor of Wilson. Thompson said that both would be working with the attorney.

“We just keep getting the party bigger and bigger,” said Johnson.

Johnson announced that he had received communication from representatives from the Clearway Group, a Texas-based solar development company, who said they would like to visit with him and said they would be in Linn County last Friday, or this Wednesday and Thursday.

He said he answered them and invited them to the commission meeting on Monday and he questioned why they did not come.

“He doesn’t need to single me out,” said Johnson.

Commission Chair Danny McCullough and Hightower both received communications from them also.

McCullough said he had received the emails but had not answered them.

Hightower said that he had met with the representative.

Thompson tried to bring the meeting back on focus by explaining about the meetings the commissioners were planning.

Gentry asked if a moratorium wouldn’t be a better route.

Hightower said that from his point of view, some of the audience’s concerns were already addressed in the zoning regulations.

“Then we go and hire an attorney,” said Johnson.

Resident Mark Briggs said that a lot of people don’t want this in their community. He said we live on acres, and send our kids to country schools.

Hightower said that there were protections in place in the zoning regulations.

Gentry asked the commissioners if they vote to allow solar farms if 100% of their constituents came to the meeting saying they did not want solar.

Hightower said that there were people who lived in the county who were for the solar farms.

“I have people that have signed the petition that said they don’t really care but just did that to get (Gentry) to leave them alone,” said Hightower.

Throughout the meeting, Johnson encouraged solar opponents by encouraging them to either request a moratorium, which he unsuccessfully made a motion for last week, or to send the solar regulations back to the planning commission.

“Send it back to the planning commission with the information they know now,” said Johnson.

Hightower asked how that was different than when they looked at it before

Johnson said he thought there was new information with the letter from a ecologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP).

The letter was correspondence to one of the solar companies from KDWP stating that, depending on the location, there would be certain species that might need protection.

KDWP sent a copy of their answer to the solar company to Wilson, who said he did not feel that it was important because there was no specific location and the Linn County zoning regulations require an environmental impact study.

The makeup of the county planning and zoning commission has changed since the new zoning regulations were approved, and there is a chance that commission could make changes.

Solar opponent Ali Hamilton said that when she was on the comprehensive plan committee, nothing was said about solar installations. However, Hamilton has previously said that she did not attend all the committee meetings.

Both solar farms and wind generators are included in the county’s comprehensive plan that was approved last year. The plan indicates that both alternate energy sources are acceptable in appropriate areas of the county.

Thies said if the planning commission had taken the industry setback standard then they would not have been able to consider the area where they live.

“They are not putting them in Prescott, Blue Mound, or Centerville, they are putting them by us, all of us,” said Thies. “We’re telling you we don’t want them here.”

Thies then suggested that if the power plant shut down, the solar farms by the plant wouldn’t be viable.

Hightower tried to explain that Evergy would still be transmitting power through their transmission lines even if the plant itself shutdown.

“So if the power plant shuts down and they are tied into the grid, it’s okay?” asked Thies. “The solar panels will continue to operate with no problem?”

“That’s my understanding,” said Hightower.

“Experts have told you this? That’s my concern,” said Thies.

“The grid is going to have to continue to operate, is it not?” said Hightower.

“How’s it going to do that if the power plant shuts down in 10 years, that’s my point,” said Thies.

McCullough attempted to explain to the audience that instead of hiring professionals to support the people for and the people against, that a conditional use permit hearing would do the same thing.

Thies told the commissioners that while this could be sent back to the planning commission, the county commissioners could override the planning commission’s decision.

“For whatever reason, you are not willing to do it, Jim is, but nobody else is,” said Thies.

McCullough said he did not want the meeting to be people just ranting.

Hamilton charged that Thompson had probably not been to a planning commission meeting for 15 years but showed up at last month’s meeting and gave her a letter and told her she had 10 minutes to speak.

Two solar development companies were also allowed to speak at the meeting, and representatives from both companies were also given 10 minutes to speak.

Hamilton said that McCullough would not allow her on the commission agenda for so many weeks.

McCullough said it had nothing to do with the solar issue but Hamilton’s behavior at another commission meeting she had attended. He said that when he heard she wanted to be on the agenda, he said he was against it because of the way she had attacked the commissioners at another meeting.

At the July 10 meeting, Hamilton had proposed a new budget of $49,000 for the Trading Post Museum, and increase of about $39,000. McCullough had moved to deny the request and the motion passed unanimously.

At that meeting, Hamilton argued with the commission about their funding of museums, not letting her on the agenda in time to speak about her budget, and telling them they should spend their economic development money differently.

At Monday’s meeting, anti-solar people continued to speak out without being called on, and some of them used profanity. Unable to bring the meeting to order and saying he did not want to disrespect everyone at the meeting, McCullough said that he was leaving the meeting and he did.

Hightower asked the audience if the county put on a moratorium did that mean that they were against Heartland, the local cooperative, putting in seven acres of solar panels north of Mound City. It’s commercial because it is going out to the people.

No answer at first from the audience.

“But if we put a moratorium on it, they can’t come in,” said Hightower. “This is Heartland Rural Electric that services our homes.”

Eventually, the audience consensus was that they did not want solar farms in the county, even though one women said that the Heartland Solar Farm at Devon was done right.

Thies then brought up the scenic byway of U.S. Highway 69. She said it’s going to be a massive beautiful eyesore of solar panels all the way down 69 Highway.

However, so far, no company has applied for a conditional permit, so no one knows where a solar farm will be located in the county.

Johnson then put Rich Morrell, the planning commission chairman who was also at Monday’s meeting, on the spot and asked him if it would be out of line if the commission sent this back to the planning board.

Morrell said, “Jim, I am not going to speak for the whole committee.”

“I know,” said Johnson. “I’m just asking you what you think.”

Morrell said if the commission desires that the planning commission review the solar regulations, that’s what the commission will do.

After McCullough’s departure, Johnson and the audience continued to pressure Hightower to send the solar regulations back to the planning and zoning board. Hightower agreed to send the regulations back for review.

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