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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Journal Staff

Planning commission recommends solar farm prohibition

Updated: May 8

Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Paul Porter and Vice Chair Elizabeth Staton discuss a talking point during the commission's meeting on Wednesday, April 9. (Roger Sims/Linn County Journal)

MOUND CITY – The Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission on a 6-2 roll-call vote on Tuesday, April 9, decided to recommend to the board of county commissioners that a prohibition against large-scale solar utility projects be adopted.

The decision to recommend a prohibition on large-scale solar projects will no doubt have the attention of representatives from Clearway Energy Group, which has already laid out plans for a  solar installation that covers almost two-thirds of a 3,300-acre tract which is located directly south of the La Cygne power plant. EDF Renewables’ plan to lease at least that much land south of Clearway’s project also will be affected.

A public hearing on the proposed change in the zoning regulations is expected to take place sometime in May. The hearing is expected to be conducted at the Prairie View Performing Arts Center where a forum on solar energy was held in March.

The planning commission on a 5-to-3 vote also decided against a motion to recommend the county commission hire a company to do a scientific survey of county residents for more accurate results of how many people were for or against solar “farms.”

Planning commission member Daniel Earnest made a motion to prohibit solar utilities at the commission’s March 12 meeting, but a parliamentary maneuver suggested by planning commission Chair Paul Porter put the question on hold for a month.

At the March meeting, commission member David Fisher made the motion to delay the vote to give the commission time to discuss proposed changes to the existing regulation which permitted solar farms to be installed in certain areas of the county with a number of restrictions.

However, there was little discussion about those proposed changes on Tuesday night. Instead, Earnest said that the number of opponents to solar power at the public forum was a finding sufficient to vote on his proposed ban.

He said that the survey conducted by the Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS) for the county’s comprehensive plan approved by the planning commission and county commission last year was inaccurate in stating that the majority of people in the county were for solar utilities, and that respondents to that survey were not given enough information.

The IBTS survey asked this question: “What is your opinion about the following emerging issues: Solar panel commercial development in Linn County.” Of the 558 respondents to that question, 37.63% were favorable, 27.96% were not favorable, 14.16% had no opinion, and 20.25% checked the “need more information” box.

Commission member Richard Morrell said he believe the comprehensive plan survey was accurate when it showed that almost 40% of county residents were favorable toward solar.

But Earnest and commission member Morgan Brown maintained that the respondents to the survey did not understand the difference between “commercial” and utility-size projects, and so that survey’s response was inaccurate.

However, above the question on commercial solar on the survey was a question on “Wind turbine commercial development in Linn County.” More than 65% of survey respondents said they were against commercial wind turbines. Following a recommendation from the planning commission, the county commission voted to ban development of wind utilities last year. 

Earnest said he felt that the solar forum was more advertised than the comprehensive plan and in his opinion the forum was a more scientific survey of the county.

Fisher said that a prohibition would also be supported by the comprehensive plan because community surveys indicated that residents wanted to maintain free and open spaces. “I don’t think you can do that with solar,” he added.

Planning commission member Richard Morrell said that while solar farm opposition had been effective in organizing their followers, he didn’t think the commission had heard from a true representation of the county’s residents. He said in order to get that perspective, the issue needed to be put before voters or a scientific survey of residents needed to be taken.

“There’s not enough passion from the people who were for it,” Fisher said, adding that the turnout of the opposition at the forum demonstrated overwhelming opposition. “There was every opportunity for those who are for it to organize and speak for it.”

Earnest said that at the March meeting when the planning commission turned down a request by Parker developer Mike Page to create a rural subdivision with 10 houses on 40 acres, the reason many commission members were against that proposal is that there were residents who were against it and none that were for it.

“I don’t know how you can apply it to that and not to the same situation we are in,” he said.

Commission member Charlene Sims that it why the commission voted at the beginning of this meeting to rehear the Page application.

Sims said that using the results of the forum, and the language about the scenic areas as findings for a move to ban them wouldn’t hold up in court.

“I don’t think anyone at this table is a lawyer, so I don’t think we should debate what will stand up in court,” said Earnest.

Porter said he had talked to County Attorney Burton Harding prior to the meeting.

“There is no pressure for us to be lawyers tonight and get all of the Is dotted and the Ts crossed,” he said.

Earnest said the commission could take the findings for banning wind generating developments and apply them to solar utilities.

Porter, who has withheld his personal opinion during weeks of discussion with the ad hoc solar committee, said his opposition to the solar fields came from his time living in Denver where people could see the mountains.

“The view of the mountains ruined by acres of black mirrors is unthinkable,” he said. While he was hopeful that there would be some sort of win-win economic development situation, he said he could not support the large solar farms.

Although he does not live near the La Cygne power plant where all of the solar development is currently planned, he said he could imagine what a Top Golf driving range with high nets built next to his rural property would do.

Sims pointed out that kind of development would need to come before the planning commission and was unlikely to be approved.

Sims said, "I know a lot of people here think I am for solar. What I am really for is landowner's rights. Other people have rights too, not just the people that come out to the meeting. Other people have rights to say I may lose my family farm but if I put solar panels on part of it, I won't lose my family farm. That is where I come from is landowner's rights and I think we are taking away half of the people in Linn County's landowner's rights and that's what we have to weigh out is how we are doing that."

She said that several people had expressed this well, Henry Chamberlain in the newspaper ads and Teresa Thomas at the public forum.

She pointed out that the land south of the power plant where solar companies have lease agreements was an industrial area because of the power plant and not the scenic view of Linn County.

“Everybody’s got rights, not just the people who don’t want it by their property,” Sims said. “I think that’s an industrial area. You cannot look at the stacks over there and say that’s not an industrial area.”

“Personally, I think the plant is beautiful,” countered Earnest. “Every time I drive by it I see dollar signs coming out of that stack.”

“The county wouldn’t be what it is without the power plant,” he added.

However, in 2021 Evergy, which owns the power plant, announced long-range plans to shutter all of its plants that burn coal, opting instead to use natural gas, wind generators and solar installations to make up the difference. It was Evergy who invited and accepted proposals from EDF Renewables and Clearway Energy Group to develop solar farms near the plant to feed into the company’s electrical grid.

The plan called for shutting down coal burning at La Cygne Unit 1 by 2032 and at La Cygne Unit 2 by 2039. While the utility company backed off plans to close the Lawrence coal plant last year, pushing it back to 2028, the company’s long-range plan in 2021 called for 17% of the company’s generating power to come from solar installations and only 7% from coal by 2040.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Porter said he thought that industrial development could take place in that area that didn’t require so much land.

Morrell said he too was against the ban because it violated landowners’ rights.

“With windmills you can see them from miles and miles away,” he said. He added that the solar panels would be only 15 feet high and the planning commission could regulate the installations to minimize their visual impact.

Commission member Eddie Anderson said he was initially for solar development when it was limited to 1% of the land in Linn County, but the increase to 2% was too much. He said he was not opposed to the smaller solar farms. Anderson has visited a solar farm owned by Heartland Rural Electric Cooperative in Bourbon County.

Anderson also said that while the power plant had as many as 200 employees, each solar farm would have only 10.

Sims said the job of the planning commission is to look at land use, and in this case require buffers that would limit the visual impact.

But Earnest pointed out that the majority of land with leases for solar development was owned by people who are not residents of Linn County. 

Commission member Morgan Brown said that he had understood that the solar companies who had leases, Clearway Energy Group and EDF Renewables, were owned by foreign companies.

EDF Renewables is a subsidiary of French utility company Électricité de France, a multinational company that is owned by the government of France and supplies electrical power to more than 15 countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas, including the United States.

While Clearway Energy Group is an American-owned company, it does have multinational companies that are investors.    

Porter said the task of the planning commission was to strike a balance between the rural character of the county and economic development. He called the county’s comprehensive plan’s take on land use “flawed.”

“Our decision has to be defensible in court, but we don’t have to figure that out tonight,” he said.

The vote to recommend prohibiting solar farms was 6-to-2 with commission members Fisher, Porter, Anderson, Earnest, Elizabeth Staton and Brown voting for it and Sims and Morrell opposing it.

Sims made a motion to recommend to the commission to have a scientific study done to get a clearer picture of how Linn County residents felt about the issue.

Morrell seconded the motion, adding that it would give the planning commission more information and help it make better decisions.

But commission members against solar farms argued against the survey.

Both Fisher and Earnest said it would delay a hearing on the issue. 

Fisher said it would complicate the issue and said the solar forum proved the overwhelming majority of people were against solar farms and a survey would only drag the process out.

The motion failed with Sims, Morrell and Staton voting for it and the others voting against it.

Zoning Director Darin Wilson will work to set up a hearing making arrangements with Prairie View. Because Fisher made his motion to set the hearing date contingent on approval by the planning commission, it will likely be voted on at the May 14 meeting unless a special meeting is called for that purpose.

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