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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Journal Staff

County planners vote to recommend solar moratorium

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

Surrounded by opponents of solar utility installations in Linn County, Heartland Electric Cooperative CEO Mark Schiebe tells members of the county planning commission that the zoning regulations for solar power are acceptable. (Photos by Roger Sims/Linn County Journal)

MOUND CITY – In a split vote, the Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday, Nov. 14, voted to recommend to the Linn County Commission that the county once again place a moratorium on the development of solar utility installations for one year. The first moratorium on solar power expired in July.

The vote came at the end of two and a half hours of testimony by both proponents and opponents of the so-called solar farms. The standing-room-only crowd of about 90 people crowded into the commissioners’ room in the courthouse annex, spilling out of the double doors on the east side of the room, which has a rated capacity of 60.

It was clear even before the request of a show of hands by planning commissioner Joab Ory that the overwhelming majority of those attending were opposed to the development of solar utilities in the county.

The recommendation will be sent to the county commission for consideration at its next meeting on Monday, Nov. 20, but it is unclear whether the commission will act on the recommendation.

Before the 5-2 vote of the commission, commission member Charlene Sims warned that a consequence of the commission’s vote could be a lawsuit by solar developers that have already completed initial work on projects under the updated zoning regulations that were approved in July.

A standing-room-only crowd, mostly of opponents to solar farms, packed into the county commission meeting room on Tuesday.

Darin Wilson, county planning and zoning administrator, confirmed that any applications submitted prior to a decision to re-implement a moratorium on solar farms could pose legal problems for the county.

Those who spoke in favor of the current zoning regulations included Mark Scheibe, the CEO of Heartland Electrical Cooperative, which has been planning a smaller-scale project north of Mound City; Josh Framel, a development manager for Clearway Energy Group, a company that has already developed plans for a 3,300-acre solar development south of the La Cygne power plant; and Leif Clark, a community engagement manager for EDF Renewables, which has been working on a project south of Clearway’s.

Supporting testimony also came from county residents Jeff Hines and Theresa Miller.

Hines said the regulations protected the rights of the landowners, put a sufficient cap of 8,000 total acres of solar utilities in the county, and sufficient setbacks for installations near structures with the planning commission’s ability to add other restrictions on conditional use permits.

Miller talked about an example of a 160-acre solar farm in Iowa on land that was not tillable and the positive benefits solar installations could provide. However, Miller, the director of the Linn County Museum in Pleasanton, warned against encroaching on historical sites in the county.

Although Jacqueline Augustine spoke during the time allotted to opponents of solar farms, the director of Audubon of Kansas said her conservation group did not support an outright ban on solar installations but was concerned about an installation close to the federal and state wildlife areas south of Kansas Highway 52. She suggested a 5-mile setback from those areas, and she also said that any electrical transmission lines should be installed underground.

Solar opponents included Scott Woods, who lives in the area south of the power plant. He read a report prepared by Lyle White, a Black and Veatch engineer, that claimed that fires at solar installations were a problem, that solar energy would benefit the wholesale market rather than local residents, that the job opportunities provided by maintaining solar installations were insignificant, and that the federal goal of reaching a net zero goal of zero carbon emissions by 2035 was almost impossible.

Stephanie Ferrero, a Pleasanton area resident who is the district president of the Kansas Wildlife Society cited the impact on whitetail deer population that will avoid energy developments. She also cited concerns about the effect on waterfowl, the incomplete restoration of land once the solar installation has been decommissioned, the possibility of fire caused by the installation and the generation of micro plastics that would remain in the soil.

Mark Briggs lamented the loss of farmland, the destruction of the scenic beauty of the area, and the impact of the developments on wildlife corridors.

Taylor Easley, a 10-year employee of the Kansas Department of Fish and Wildlife who worked at the state wildlife area, suggested that the 5-mile setback from the wildlife areas would be good.

Riley Hinds voiced his concern that EDF Renewables was a company owned by Électricité de France, a multinational state-owned French utility company. He said he was concerned that the nation would become energy-dependent on France and that France has indicated it would not support the United States if it went to war against China.

Other concerns raised included the loss of a rural lifestyle, property owners surrounded by solar panels, leaching of cadmium and other heavy metals into the environment, and workers hired by solar companies changing the makeup of local communities.

Pointing out that several of the landowners that are signing leases with solar companies are non-residents, Pleasanton-area resident Aubin Skipper called for the county to take a vote on allowing the development of solar farms.

Alison Hamilton, one of the principal organizers against solar in the county, cited overwhelming opposition to solar farms among county residents. She also vowed that her group would fight the issuing of a conditional use permit for a solar utility in court.

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