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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Journal Staff

Solar farm opponents run into roadblocks at planners' meeting

Solar farm opponent Alison Hamilton, center, presents reasons to the county planning commission why the installations should be banned. (Photos by Roger Sims/Linn County Journal)

By Roger Sims, Journal staff

MOUND CITY – More than 70 people, mostly Linn County residents, jammed into the Linn County Commission chamber on Tuesday evening, Sept. 12, to express their views on proposed industrial-scale solar installations to the Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission.

Opponents of the large-scale installations that developers hope to build south of the La Cygne power plant came armed with several people to present testimony to why the county should rescind zoning regulations approved in July that would allow up to 8,000 acres of industrial solar farms in the county. That represents about 2% of the county’s land area.

However, their hopes turned to anger and frustration when planning commission chairman Richard Morrell announced that only one of the opponents, Alison Hamilton, would be allowed to speak because she had asked to be on the agenda. He also said that representatives of two solar development companies had also asked to be on the agenda, and they would be allowed to speak.

Morrell’s comments followed a 10-minute closed-door session with County Counselor Gary Thompson shortly after the meeting was called to order.

Presumably acting on Thompson’s instruction, Morrell told the audience that because the planning commission had no active cases in pending, commission members wouldn’t make any comments or decisions. He was careful to point out that it was the commission’s meeting and not a public hearing or public forum, and that each of the three speakers would have 10 minutes to speak.

Thompson followed Morrell’s comments by giving a brief history of the recently adopted zoning regulations. He said the process began almost three years ago when the county began to update its comprehensive plan. Once that was done about 18 months ago, the planning commission began working to revise county zoning regulations.

Once the comprehensive plan was completed, the county commission decided to place a moratorium on solar farms until the zoning regulations were completed.

Among other changes, the proposed regulations allowed for up to 4,000 total acres of industrial solar installations in the county.

The planning commission conducted a hearing last April on the proposed changes, and several spoke against allowing solar farms in the county. However, solar development companies also presented their case, including asking to allow more land for solar.

The planning commission increased the number of acres to 8,000 in the final revision and voted to approve the new zoning regulations. After deliberating on the changes, which included a ban on industrial wind turbine installations, the county commission approved the updated zoning regulations in early July.

Thompson said that there were two times during the process where appeals could have been made. Between the time the planning commission approved the new regulations and the county commission acted on them, there was a 21-day period for the public to present a protest petition.

Linn County residents, most of them opposed to solar farms proposed for the county, packing into the meeting chamber at the courthouse annex on Tuesday, Sept. 12.

After the regulations were approved by the county commission in July, there was another 30-day period in which the public has the option to file a petition in district court to repeal the regulations.

“Once that 30-day period is gone, it’s over,” he said. “The regulations have been approved.”

“The only way to change them now is to go through the process again,” Thompson added.

The next step, he said, would be for solar developers to apply for a conditional-use permit to build the installation. The planning commission would then hold a hearing on the request.

“How long have you known that I’m the only one allowed to speak?” asked Hamilton, adding that there were multiple people in her group that would address individual reasons for opposing solar farms and she hadn’t planned to cover it all.

“We are looking for the planning and zoning committee to reconsider the adopted regulations on solar farms and present back to the commissioners that the county’s consensus view is that the solar farms should be prohibited,” Hamilton said.

“Along with wind, solar farms are incompatible with the enhancement and protection of the rural character of the county, and that a prohibition is consistent with the goals and objectives of preserving agricultural land and the resources of the county as noted in the comprehensive plan,” she added.

She went on to charge that the installation of solar farms would lead to an environmental disaster, and in addition to asking the county commission to reconsider solar farms that the planning commission should also request a moratorium on their development.

Hamilton pointed out that the county in the past has controlled what people did with their land, including stopping a large swine production operation, a landfill, and more recently wind turbines. She also called reports that the La Cygne power plant would be closing and that property taxes would increase across the county if that happened “fear-mongering.”

Hamilton charged that the county failed to provide adequate communication to its residents about this issue. She also said that not one of the property owners who are negotiating with solar developers in the area south of the power plant lives there.

“This is not what we wanted,” she said.

Many of the people in the audience live close to where the solar farms are expected to be, and Hamilton said the more than 800 people have signed either a paper or online petition asking that the county not allow solar farms.

Josh Framel, right, with Clearway Energy Group discusses a map of the proposed solar farms with county residents.

With time left on the clock, Hamilton turned to Stephanie Ferrero, who she identified as a biologist, for more information to include in her presentation

Hamilton then asked if a study had been done on the effect the solar farms would have on eight species in the area that are on the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks’ endangered list. She suggested that the installations would essentially eliminate all wildlife in the area.

As her time ran out, Hamilton charged that the planning commission had five findings in its decision to allow solar farms, and she felt that those findings were not adequately discussed before being adopted. She pointed out that the original setback on solar panels from property lines was 500 feet and bowing to the wishes of developers the planning commission reduced that to 150 feet.

It should be noted that while it does seek to preserve the rural and historical character of the area, the county’s comprehensive plan also provides for both industrial wind- and solar-power development in areas that are deemed appropriate.

A representative from one of the solar development companies at the meeting indicated that being able to connect to the high-voltage power lines leading away from the La Cygne power plant was definitely a factor in the decision to try to build on land south of the plant.

Changes in setbacks for solar farms were made following a visit by planning commission members to a smaller-scale solar farm operated by Heartland Electrical Cooperative.

Changes to the setback were discussed by both the planning commission and the county commission. Both media outlets that cover Linn County government ran stories on the discussions prior to the July approval by the county commission.

Following Hamilton’s presentation, Leif Clark, a community engagement manager for EDF Renewables, a solar grid developer based in Houston, Texas, told the audience that development plans were still in the early stages but that his company was definitely interested in installing a farm in the area.

Madison Gray, right, a project developer with EDF Renewables, discusses the proposed solar farms with concerned residents following the planning commission meeting on Tuesday.

“We will come to the county with a site plan where everyone will see exactly where everything is going to be,” Clark said. “There will be an opportunity for the public to ask questions.”

He said his company would negotiate what he called “good neighbor agreements” with owners of property adjacent to the solar installations. He also added that his company wanted to become involved in the community.

Clark pointed out that the land his company is contemplating building on is agricultural land and grazing land that has already been disrupted. He said it is neither wetlands or forests, and added that the solar project can be used to re-establish small mammals, birds and pollinating insects.

He also pointed out that the solar farms will have a decommissioning plan in place before construction begins that will provide for removal of the solar structures when they are no longer needed.

Clark also said that the solar installations are one type of development that can co-exist with agriculture, adding that has an “incredible” benefit to the tax base of the community.

Josh Framel, a senior manager of development for Clearway Energy Group, a San Francisco-based solar developer, also briefly addressed the planning process, telling the planners that his presentation would closely follow Clark’s.

He said his company’s installations will help protect habitat and wildlife corridors. Now, he added, solar farms are being designed in the best way possible.

Clark and his associate, Madison Gray, a project developer, made good on Clark’s promise to discuss the project with the public by talking with a group of as many as 20 people outside the courthouse annex for nearly an hour after the meeting adjourned.

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