The Linn County Commission appoints an ad hoc group including solar farm proponents and opponents to discuss zoning regulations for solar utiities. (Wix photo)
By Charlene Sims, firstname.lastname@example.org
MOUND CITY – Developing an ad hoc committee to get community input in the wake of a moratorium on regulations concerning solar utility installations make a lot of sense.
That was the message from Barry Matchett, head of external affairs for Clearway Energy Group, to the Linn County Commission on Monday, Dec. 6.
Clearway is one of two solar utility development companies looking to build solar farms south of the La Cygne power plant. The company released plans last month to build a 3,300-acre solar farm there.
Matchett said that his company would come as frequently needed to help answer any questions at forums or other meetings.
“We go and we listen, and we listen, And we listen. and we will do that here,” he said about the way Clearway participates in issues with the public.
“It is really our obligation to do that is the way we look at it,” said Matchett. “If we are not here, we are just an outsider coming in and telling you how to run your county.”
“If we want to come to your county, we need to be a guest,” said Matchett. “We are guests and hope to be long time members of your community as a business.”
Matchett following a address to the commission by Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission chair Richard Morrell and long-time member Charlene Sims (see a separate opinion piece) Matchett said there was a very real concern that the Kansas Legislature is going to take local control away – that bill is 100% being written in various places.
Whether it’s being written by Evergy or a variety of people, that bill is going to be introduced in the next legislative session, and it will prevent counties from navigating solar farm issues on their own.
Morrell told the commissioners that his past experience in higher education administration taught him that when there's a lot of controversy and varying of opinions, you need find the common ground where everybody can reside.
Morrell said that when he made his no vote on the moratorium, he was hoping that the planning and zoning could have two or three or more meetings and find the solution and not have to spend a whole year on it. But, he said he was okay with the moratorium giving the planning commission time to work this out and figure out how to move forward.
Morrell went over the values in the comprehensive plan and pointed out what he thought were two of the important ones in this matter. The first was to keep Linn County as beautiful as it always has been but not to forget that we need revenue sources to keep the county going.
He said if surrounding counties are any indication on this, the solar installation could be worth over a million dollars a year to the county and it should not be discounted. He said that could be very important to the progress and vitality of the county.
Morrell said, "My main point is we need to find the common ground and I think within a year we will be able to do that."
After hearing, the planning board members and Matchett speak, the commissioners discussed the proposed solar committee and who would be on it.
At last week’s meeting, Commission Chair Danny McCullough was looking at a committee of solar opponents working with Wilson to develop regulations and then taking their suggestions back to the planning and zoning commission.
Wilson said that he had two hours of video and recorded public forum and statements for, against and neutral to the solar farms from the last workshop meeting.
“My question to you is, we’ve got regulations that are in place that were voted for, that were adopted,” said Wilson. “Shouldn’t we take the complaints and see if the regulations that we have will stand the test?
“And if we find that they don’t stand the test, then we start looking at other counties on how some of that was written to add to ours or other opinions. I think we start with what we have and put it to the test.”
Commissioner Jason Hightower asked, “Isn’t that going to be best suited at the planning and zoning since that’s what they do anyway?”
“Well, they know the regulations, they helped write them,” said Wilson.
Wilson explained that he was a neutral party in this.
“As a neutral party, I’m the most neutral person there is. I have to take every aspect of a conditional use permit and apply it to a staff report of facts to best suit the county’s needs, said Wilson. “And I have proven that with Regina’s Rescue.
“There is so much that isn’t in the regulations that can be added as conditions to a conditional use permit to benefit the neighbors of the applicant. And I take that stuff into consideration, and I take the job pretty seriously and with that I put recommendations to planning and zoning that a building needs to be built, sanitation needs to be built, certain fencing needs to be put in.”
He said that except for the fencing, none of that is specifically in the zoning regulations but he listens to the people that say “no,” to the people that say “yes,” and to the person that is making the application. He then puts it into a staff report that best suits the county.
McCullough asked, “If we don’t have this committee, I don’t know how we get all the information to the planning and zoning without having a meeting like we did the last meeting.”
“In my mind, when I voted for the moratorium I guess I was thinking different than Jim and Jason were thinking,” said McCullough.
Johnson said, “We need to send it back to the planning and zoning and let them work through it.”
Hightower said, “If they decide on changes, we will have another hearing.”
After hearing a suggestion from Wilson that the committee be made up of two solar opponents, two pro-solar people, and a neutral person, Johnson made a motion that it should be the planning board with two representatives from each side of the issue and a solar industry consultant to answer any questions that attended the meeting.
County Counselor Gary Thompson said he thought that was a good compromise between the two different suggestions and stated that the four representatives would be like ex officio members who were part of the discussion but did not have a vote. Since the meetings are public, anyone could attend but only the representatives could speak and be part of the conversation.
Wilson confirmed with Thompson that these would be public workshops where the planning commission members could discuss and even come to a consensus but could not officially vote on anything until a regular meeting.