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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Sims, Journal staff

County hires attorney to guide commission on solar issues

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

The Linn County Commission voted on Monday to hire an attorney to represent the county on solar farm issues. (Wix file photo)

By Charlene Sims, Journal staff

MOUND CITY – The Linn County Commissioners dealt with issues related to solar power in Linn County during the commission meeting on Monday, Sept. 18.

First, the commissioners approved retaining Trish Voth from the firm of Foulston Siefkin LLP in Wichita to help them as solar power companies start to apply for conditional permits from Linn County. Voth has expertise in this area.

Commissioner Jim Johnson voted against hiring Voth, saying the commission should look for different options.

Commission Chair Danny McCullough asked County Counselor Gary Thompson to go over how the commission decided to hire Voth.

Thompson explained that they had looked at three different firms that had extensive experience in this area. One firm did not respond to his request, and the commission decided on this Voth’s firm over the other firm. Thompson said the commissioners felt that she was the most on top of things, and that Linn County has worked successfully with Voth’s firm before.

Thompson explained that Voth would help guide the county as it was dealing with solar companies on issues like payments in lieu of taxes (also known as PILT), what restrictions they expect to see on use of roads and other issues. She would also work with the commissioners on how to work with people who are opposed to solar energy in Linn County.

And Voth would work with the commissioners to make sure they are preparing themselves appropriately for litigation if necessary.

McCullough said that he would like to start out with Voth meeting with the commissioners in a workshop to outline what she was going to help them with.

Thompson said that Voth would be happy to meet with them in person or via internet videoconference. Thompson said it was normal and expected that the fees for the attorney would be part of the application fee of the solar companies.

Then the commissioners heard from several opponents of solar power during public comment.

Sherri Gentry explained that she and many others had not been aware of the solar energy companies wanting to build in Linn County. She also said that the county had not done a good job of notifying people of the solar issues in the zoning regulations.

Gentry told the commissioners that they had a petition with 800 signatures. She said that the people who had signed said that they had not been aware of the solar issue.

Gentry asked the commissioners if they knew that the solar company EDF Renewables had started signing contracts for solar farms with people in 2020. She named four people that had leases registered in the court house. They were: Maple Ranch, one contract in 2020; Lance Dirks, one lease in 2021; Janet Karlin Trust, one contract in 2021; and Jeff Nelson, two contracts.

Because of this, Gentry asked that the commissioners hold a public forum to hear what Linn County residents had to say about solar energy in the county.

At a planning and zoning commission meeting last week, about 70 residents turned out, but only one person had signed up to be on the agenda and that person was limited to 10 minutes to address the commission.

At that meeting, Thompson told them that the time for public input in the zoning regulations was over.

According to Thompson, the regulations state that the public can provide input between the time of the public hearing for the zoning regulations and then also 30 days after the commissioners approve the regulation.

Emily Theis started out her comment by condemning Thompson for his “scolding” of the public at the planning commission meeting.

McCullough told her that this public comment was for talking about issues not pointing fingers at anyone.

She then talked about the toxic materials that are in solar panels. She expressed her concerns about solar farm fires and the toxic chemicals that can be released into the air when there is a fire. She told the commissioners about health issues that can be caused by solar farms.

She said that living next to a solar farm that produces such bright light it can produce eye damage.

She also said that the heat generated by these massive fields from the solar panels can cause the rate of the temperature in the community to increase by 3 to 8 degrees higher.

When the air is warmed, it rises. Even small differences in ordinary land surfaces are capable of creating power forces like thunderstorms and tornados, she added.

The opponents asked for more time to allow input at a public hearing or putting the issue on a ballot. Thompson told them that the commissioners would have to make that decision to put it on a ballot, and it would only be an advisory election not an election that would bind the commissioners to change anything.

McCullough made a motion, and the other commissioners agreed, to have a public meeting after they met with the Voth and before approving any conditional-use permits.

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