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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Sims, Journal staff

Solar farm opponents continue to press for a moratorium

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

By Charlene Sims, Journal staff

MOUND CITY – Solar opponents pressed the Linn County Commissioners on Monday, Sept. 25, to place a moratorium on solar power in Linn County. Opponents resorted to unruly behavior while telling the commissioners that they were not angry with them and they just wanted to be involved in the decision-making.

After stating that she was concerned about many aspects of commercial solar farms, county resident Sherri Gentry said that the commissioners should realize that the citizens of Linn County were against possible solar farms coming into the county.

She asked that the commissioners just slow things down and allow citizens more time to be involved.

“Please listen to your citizens,” said Gentry. “Put it before a vote right now on a moratorium for solar projects in Linn County. This is the best way to avoid lawsuits and allow everyone involved to communicate as a county together without outside influences. I now ask all of you commissioners to make a motion for a one-year moratorium on the commercial solar farms for your citizens of your county.”

The county planning and zoning board and comprehensive plan group members have been working on surveys of citizens for more than three years. The county’s comprehensive plan, which was approved by both the county planning and zoning commission and the county commissioners following a public hearing, allows installations of both wind turbines and solar farms in areas where deemed appropriate.

After the comprehensive plan was completed and a public hearing was held for the zoning regulations, which the planning board had worked on for nearly a year, the regulations were approved following a separate public hearing. The regulations prohibited wind turbines but allowed solar farms with strict regulations.

Then Commissioner Jim Johnson attempted to blame Planning and Zoning Administrator Darin Wilson for a letter from the Kansas Department of Wildlife in June 2022 that he said Wilson received and did not present to the planning board.

“It’s an opinion letter from the Department of Wildlife and Parks,” said Johnson.

Johnson said it was a three-page letter and asked Wilson to read the first few lines.

The June 9, 2022 letter, sent to Oklahoma City-based engineering firm Olson from Zac Eddy, terrestrial ecologist with Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, began as follows:

“We have reviewed the information and meeting minutes for the Swan Solar project introduction. During a March 24 web meeting, Clearway Energy and Olsson presented a project that would construct and operate a solar energy conversion facility along the Kansas/Missouri border. In Kansas, the project would occupy an area estimated to be about 2830 acres in Linn County, Kansas. Comments herein do not constitute a full review of the project by this agency, but provide recommendations related to potential impacts to critical wildlife habitats, current state-listed threatened or endangered species and species in need of conservation, as well as Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) managed areas for which this agency has administrative authority. Prior to completing a full environmental review, KDWP will need additional project details.”

Following a list of recommendations on how to address possible conflicts with area wildlife habitat, Eddy once again said that no recommendations on the project could be made until the plans were more fully developed.

Wilson said that he and Public Works Director Shaun West brought the letter to the attention of the commissioners.

“Where did you give it to us at?” asked Johnson.

Commission Chair Danny McCullough asked what the letter had to do with the solar regulations.

I’m just asking about the letter, because I did not know anything about this letter, said Johnson.

“Did the planning and zoning board know about it?” asked Johnson.

Wilson said he did not give the letter to the planning and zoning commission, but he gave it to James Kaup, the attorney hired by the county to help develop the new zoning regulations.

It was after that when the commissioners made the decision to put a temporary moratorium on solar installations until zoning regulations were updated and included solar and wind turbines.

Johnson asked Wilson if he reached out to anybody else about it.

Wilson said that he had shown the letter to Mike White, a planning commission member, back then when he came into his office and discussed it with him. White, while a friend of Johnson’s, did not bring the letter to the attention of the planning board.

“How can it be given to one planning and zoning board member and not everybody?” asked Johnson.

Johnson continued to infer that Wilson was hiding this letter from the planning board.

Wilson said that until a conditional use permit (CUP) was applied for this letter was not relevant.

Commission Chair Danny McCullough said that was how he looked at it.

Thompson said this was the kind of letter that the county would look at if there were a specific plan. He read from the letter which said they needed additional information to make a decision about this project.

Rick James, former county commissioner who attended Monday’s meeting, said he did not remember ever seeing the letter. He said that if they had this letter he would question whether there was one from the federal wildlife officials.

He said this concerned him because maybe the comprehensive plan developers or the planning and zoning would have made different regulations if they had.

And the county is getting ready, James said, to take 8,000 usable acres out of every farmer and rancher in Linn County. So I think it is very important that this was available to them and if it wasn’t and you are still going to keep the regulations on and you’re still going to keep commercial solar farms going they need this document as well as the opinion of the federal and they need to go back and look at the highway scenic views.

“But you remember the county comprehensive plan, the best thing about living in Linn County was the beauty and the rural-ness that we have,” said James.

James said he had been to solar farms and there was not a blade of grass growing below the panels. So there is no animals, no existence below what is just a bunch of panels facing the sun.

James asked the commissioners to listen to the 800 to 1,000 people who had signed the petition saying they knew nothing about this and did not want solar in the county. Put a moratorium on it and figure out if you are going to keep it, he said.

West, Wilson’s supervisor, said he felt like it was being implied that Wilson had hidden information from the commissioners or planning and zoning.

“Every step of this process that he has done in this, he has put a great deal of effort, his personal time,” West said. “He takes calls on this on his personal time on his weekends.

“He has dealt with this with due diligence. He has kept me informed every step of the way, and I believe he has disclosed and kept you informed. He has disclosed and made the process known to the planning and zoning, made recommendations to both them and you when counsel should be hired to look at these steps.”

“There isn’t a part of this process that (Wilson) hasn’t handled professionally,” West told the commissioners. “Not in any part of that process did he have a vested interest in or he did anything more than what is given to him in the comp plan and his job description, which I have copies of, which details out the nature of those things.

“I understand this is controversial. I understand that this plays a roll in affecting our community, but I also want everyone here to understand that the direction that he has been given is the direction he has taken at every step of this.

“So if there is any doubt that he hasn’t followed those lines given to him, both in the comprehensive plan and his job description, I would ask you to review that before any statements are made or to carefully make those statements because he’s done due diligence and he’s done a fine job in handling this.

“If you choose to take another direction he’ll do the same quality work in doing that as well.”

McCullough said this is the reason he wanted to talk to the attorney who specializes in this.

Johnson made a motion to reinstate a moratorium for solar development for one year. It died for lack of second.

Thompson then addressed the commission saying that he did not have an agenda in this any way either. He said that he had said many times before he did not care if there were solar farms or not.

“I’m not opposed to them, and I ‘m not supporting them,” Thompson said.

He said his job is to make sure the county does what the regulations say, and that the commission does it fairly and efficiently. The commission has taken the wise step of retaining outside counsel who is an expert about this to advise them on this program.

He suggested that the commissioner at least visit with that counsel first before it takes any action, and then address this question next week after your meeting with her.

Johnson asked Thompson if he thought that letter from Kansas Wildlife had vital information that the planning board should have had.

Thompson said that he did not believe that the letter addressed any certain project.

County resident Emily Thies spoke and said she felt that the county counselor and Wilson were inconsistent with the information given to citizens about when they had a chance to protest. She referred to past commission meeting videos she had watched.

Thies said that in Article 14 there was no explanation about the times citizens could protest like Thompson said.

Thompson attempted to explain that the protest information was in the zoning regulations. Thies told him she did not want him to talk during the time she had to speak.

Thies told the commissioners if they did not put a moratorium on solar farms, every Monday they would be at the commission meeting with more and more people who knew nothing about the commission’s regulations, its process, its well-laid-out, clearly worded newspaper articles stating its clear intentions for solar farms in Linn County.

She said her group would petition more people at local events and parades. They will go door to door informing more people until the commission would eventually need a bigger meeting room for people who attend these meetings.

And finally, she asked commissioners, please visualize a massive solar farm 150 feet from your home. That’s less distance than what the courthouse is away from the annex.

Thies asked why would commissioners allow this to come to the county and rollback the national industry standard of 1.2 miles.

Thies then charged that residents are being kept in the dark about decisions regarding solar farms. She said her group will be reaching out to the state attorney general on all of these inconsistencies.

She also said she appreciated that all meetings are live-streamed because it will allow her group to present all of the evidence on those recordings to be presented.

Scott Woods, another county resident, said that he had moved four miles south of the power plant in 1997, and he would have to move if he were surrounded by solar panels.

Please consider that there are no pro-solar folks in this room, said Woods.

Woods said he loved living where he does and did not want to move. However, if he is stuck in the middle of 2 million solar panels, it will be like living in the middle of an Easy-Bake Oven.

“This is nothing but a giant money grab, you know it, we know it,” said Woods.

Commission Chair Danny McCullough reiterated throughout the meeting that he wanted to meet with the attorney hired by the county for solar issues before he made his mind up about anything.

Audience members stated that they thought they should be involved in the meeting with the attorney.

McCullough had stated at last week’s meeting that after hearing what the attorney had to say and before any conditional-use permit was approved, a public meeting would be held where people could voice their opinions.

Audience members continued to interrupt and shout from the audience, insisting that the commissioners did not need to meet with the attorney that they just needed to vote for a moratorium like they wanted them to. They also insisted that they wanted to be on next week’s agenda.

McCullough told them it depended on what they learned today from the attorney,

Although McCullough appeared throughout the discussion to patiently listen to audience members, planning commission member Mike White stood up and told McCullough, “Danny control yourself, control yourself.

“It’s okay, you know, just want to tell you its okay to open this up for reconsideration, the planning board will be fine with it, I’m sure.”

At the end of the commission meeting, McCullough asked County Clerk David Lamb if it would be possible to book a courtroom for next week’s meeting. McCullough said it wasn’t fair to the other people who worked in the annex building to have to listen to people yelling and being disruptive.

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