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Opinion: Ban on solar, and even wind, could spur action by Kansas Legislature

Below is the text of a presentation made to the Linn County Commission on Monday, Dec. 4. Charlene Sims ia a member of the Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission as well as a writer for the Linn County Journal. She prefaced her remarks by saying that she was not speaking for the planning commission.

By Charlene Sims

As a citizen and a long time member of the planning commission, I want to express my concern for where the county is headed with the moratorium for solar and even the prohibition on wind turbines.

Having been on the planning commission for over 20 years, I can tell you that because of statutes passed by the Kansas Legislature, Linn County continues to have less control over what happens within its borders.

When I was first appointed to the commission, feedlots could be regulated more stringently than they are now, including the setbacks from residences. But that changed and the county has very little control over where feedlots are placed in the county.

Because of the Legislature, the planning commission cannot question environmental impact on the land, wildlife, and real estate values. It takes a major problem for a feedlot to be checked even for polluting waterways. The state legislature made this decision.

Someday when western Linn County, an area that used to have beautiful native grasses and rolling hills like the Flint Hills, looks like Dodge City or Garden City, people will ask how that happened

About five years ago, the planning commission discovered we could not control where cell towers are placed. I think Gary Thompson talked with you last week about this transmission line being similar to cell towers.

We used to be able to regulate cell towers so that there wasn’t one every mile along the road. Now when tower developers apply for a permit, we cannot question why they want to stop using one cell tower and build one right down the road. Because of the powerful communications lobby in the Legislature, our hands have been tied.

Now, we have wind turbines and solar farms coming to the counties across Kansas. Heartland Rural Electric Cooperative, which serves all of us who live outside city limits is wanting to build a relatively small solar field like it has done in other counties.

The reason we are having a debate on solar power is that Evergy sent out a request for proposals to solar development companies for larger installations. Whether you are in favor of or opposed to solar and wind energy, the trend across Kansas has been greater reliance on those two sources of energy along with natural gas plants that can come on line quickly and produce less carbon dioxide.

Representatives from Clearway and EDF have said that access to an existing energy grid already developed for the power plant is a main factor in placing solar installations near the plant.

And Evergy has already announced plans to shut down the La Cygne plant by closing down one unit and then another over the course of the next few years.

For years county commissioners have worried what would happen when the plant shuts down because of the impact it will have on county services. It is largely because of that plant that county property owners pay less than 40% of what it takes for our current services.

In a best case scenario, Evergy will replace the current coal-fired plant with one that operates on natural gas, but as usual the company is tight-lipped about its plans.

In any case, the current proposals for solar farms will provide tax revenue for the county and as well as two of the county’s three school districts over the long term. The county is in the position to negotiate a payment in lieu of taxes from solar developers to make up for lost tax revenue. That could also include benefits for school districts.

Over the long term, Clearway’s installation will help the Prairie View school district, which has benefitted tremendously from the revenue produced by the current power plant. The other solar farm project proposed by EDF will help the Pleasanton school district taxes. But because people don’t want to see solar panels, the Pleasanton area does not get that benefit.

The county has an opportunity now to benefit from solar installations, and the moratorium could convince solar developers to go east of the state line. But it also could push Evergy to push pressure on the Legislature to enact statutes that would give Linn County less control.

My concerns grew over the past two weeks when the commission decided to hassle Evergy over a transmission line to Missouri. As Jason asked Danny last week, do you think you can stop them from having solar farms in Missouri?

In researching where the proposed solar farms will be, only two of the families that have been pushing to stop solar farms live in that area and would be directly affected. If this had been presented to the planning board when a conditional use permit was applied for, current regulations cover many of their concerns and conditions more than likely would have been added to the permits to cover their concerns.

But their intentions are not to work on regulations that will cover the their issues like setbacks, endangered wildlife, fire control, etc. Their intention is to keep all solar out of Linn County. Their intention is no secret to anyone. Their purpose in the moratorium is to give them more time because they know that applications for conditional use permits are close at hand.

So why go through with the farce of setting up a committee that will waste the time of the planning and zoning director Darin Wilson for months with no results except that they hope that the solar companies will go away?

Evergy is not going to go away. Neither is the push for solar and wind energy.

The proposed solar farms would have picked up a large part of that loss as the power plant closes down. There is nothing else to cover that. And no, I don’t believe it is a myth, like some solar opponents say, that the power plant is closing down someday.

As for seeing the solar panels. The proposed solar farms were going to be located east of 69 Highway to the state line, not west, like the maps of the solar opponents have showed people. The solar farms were not even going to be seen from 69 highway.

Solar opponents have continued to make false claims about noise. Solar farms do not emit as much noise as 69 highway. For those people living within a mile or so of the highway, the sound is no excuse.

In fact, there are no findings that would stand up in court to put a moratorium on solar and probably not even on wind turbines. When the planning board voted to prohibit wind turbines, no member presented any finding to prohibit wind turbines.

The ones who voted against it just said they did not want to see them in the county. Mr. Kaup kindly translated that into language about the scenic beauty of Linn County and the commissioners went along with that.

About the planning board. I have seen many people come and go over the time I have been on the planning board but I have never seen the lack of participation that we have from at least two of our new members. Their absence has been particularly troubling during the time the county is going through the process of developing its regulations.

Being on the planning board is not a feel-good meeting that you go to when you want to. In my opinion for those members who attend regularly and have met many times a month for the past nine months, it is an insult for other members to show up and – not having known what was discussed or worked on – just jump in and make a motion without any regard or question about what work has been done.

Most people when they come on a board, listen and learn for a while so that when they do make motions they have conditions and findings with their motion – not just that’s what I want to do – as was the case with the last motion made for Regina’s Rescue and also the moratorium.

But, you the commissioners are the ones who pick the people and also get rid of the people who have been on there and have experience.

Last year, the commission passed a resolution that would force long-time members off of county boards. For the planning commission, it forced off people who were experienced, who considered both sides of the issues faced, and who were well aware of the need to make valid findings for their decisions.

While I do believe that new people need to be put on the board when there are openings, they should agree to attend every meeting to the best of their ability and either go to trainings or have the zoning director offer workshops for them. When I first started on the planning board, I attended workshops with the zoning director and on my own so that I would be knowledgeable about what I was doing.

This is one of the board positions in the county that can easily get the county sued or in trouble if a board member does not understand their position. It is very difficult to get a good picture of what you are doing when you only attend every second or third meeting.

The planning commission needs to have members who are objective, do not have their own agendas, and who try to look at the good, the bad, and then try to balance out what is the best for everyone in the county are what make our county successful.

It is very difficult to reach that balance but it definitely cannot be reached when members do not take their jobs seriously. Because of either partisanship or a lack of respect for the experience of older adults, previous commissioner Rick James wanted to clean out all the boards in the county. When you did that this year with the planning board, you removed one of the people who was the most objective, the most concerned with landowner’s rights and had a lot of knowledge of the county. Sometimes older people do have the experience and the wisdom that is necessary for difficult situations.

In ending my concerns, I would like to challenge everyone in Linn County who does not feel that there should be a moratorium but strict regulations on solar farms to call their commissioner and let them know. Hopefully the solar opponents will not be tying up their phone lines so that they will not return your calls.

I also challenge Commissioner Johnson to have his phone number put on the county website. He has been the commissioner for nearly three years and has had this issue brought up to him several times. By having his contact information available, he would be more accessible to all of his constituents.

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