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  • Writer's pictureJournal Staff Report

Weight of public opinion on solar farms discussed by county commission, ad hoc group

Updated: Jan 26

The Linn County Commission and the ad hoc committee on solar utility regulations discuss how to gauge public opinion on the alternate energy source. (Wix file photo)

MOUND CITY – The Linn County Commissioners once again went over the goals of the solar regulations ad hoc committee on Monday, Jan. 22.

Commission Chair Jason Hightower and Commissioner Danny McCullough wanted the committee to continue going over regulations and how they covered the solar opponents concerns, but Commissioner Jim Johnson questioned whether the committee should wait until a public forum was held to gather more public opinion.

Discussion was held on the public forum and how it would benefit the decisions of the county’s planning and zoning commission. McCullough expressed concern that people needed more education on the solar farms, both pro and con. He was concerned that many people were getting their information from Facebook postings that were only negative.

McCullough expressed concern that solar opponent Alison Hamilton and others would load the meeting with a 1,000 people who did not want it.

“How’s that fair to the people?” asked McCullough.

County Counselor Gary Thompson said that the people who either had no concern or were for it needed to get out and express their opinion at the meeting.

While public opinion is considered by the planning board in making decisions, it is not the deciding factor. At the Jan. 10 ad hoc meeting, planning board member Paul Porter explained what he looked at in making his decision as a planning board member. They were: public opinion, the regulations, staff findings, the Kansas Supreme Court ruling on Golden vs. the City of Overland Park, and the comprehensive plan.

At the same meeting, pro solar ad hoc committee member Jeff Hines expressed, “So hearing that the county commissioners want public input, andn rightfully so, I mean this is a big decision for our county. We need to hear from the residents.

“Having a public forum, there is not a worse option to gain accurate and actionable information that reflects the entire opinion of the county. So, working in education, we gauge the public opinion on a regular basis and its important to our work just like it is here.

“One of the things that I found out is that if you want quality information that is truly representative of any group that you want to survey, it cannot be opt-in and a public forum is the worst of an opt-in because of the nature of how the people feed off of each other whether for or against. 

“I would be saying this if I sat on the other side of the issue. I’m pretty much right in the middle on this. And so if they want actionable information, they need to hire an organization that does a phone call survey and gets a cross section of the entire county rather than hearing from one pocket of the county that is adamantly against it. Which is what we have right now.”

Some of the other planning commission members thought that a scientific study would be a good way to go.

The solar opponents said that they would rather have a referendum vote.

And at the Jan. 17 ad hoc meeting, Porter explained why he could vote to put a prohibition on wind turbines but needed to complete the regulation on solar farms.

“Because of the comprehensive plan, because the survey is published in the comprehensive plan, I feel pretty strongly that data needs to reflect the county,” Porter said. “We can’t have regulations in moving forward as a county that seemingly contradict our comprehensive plan, and I know it doesn’t contradict the rural stuff but because we have that survey in there we need to deal with it. 

“We can’t lean on the comprehensive plan for wind and ignore the comprehensive plan for solar if, in fact, we were to move forward as you hope. You can’t have it both ways.”

Porter was referring to a survey of Linn County residents and stakeholders for the comprehensive plan that showed that, of the nearly 560 people who responded to the survey, 65% of respondents were against commercial wind turbine operations but only 38% were against commercial solar installations.

Porter said if the planning board had something relatively objective like a scientific survey or a referendum on the ballot, the best we can do that is objective to basically replace the survey that’s in the comprehensive plan with verbiage and results that all of us are comfortable with.

At the commission meeting on Jan. 8, County Clerk David Lamb suggested to the commissioners, “Just to throw something out. I don’t want to take anything away from public opinion. It’s very important you need to know what the public thinks ,but that is not the only thing to consider on something like this. 

“You’ve got landowner’s rights to look at. You’ve got state and federal regulations to comply with. I don’t think it is a yes or no based on public opinion. I think you’ve got other factors you need to consider.”

Johnson, at the Jan. 22 meeting said, “We can listen to facts all day long, Danny, but if the people of Linn County want it or don’t, that’s what we’re after.”

Earlier Johnson had said that, “The experts can talk all day long but basically it’s what the public wants. You can gather pros and cons. We can sit there and talk all day long. But you’re not going to change the minds of either one.”

McCullough expressed that he was concerned that the public was only hearing the negative comments about solar. He said that neither the commission nor the public had heard what solar was going to do for Linn County. He talked about what other counties had received from solar farms.

McCullough was referring to the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement which is used as an alternative form of compensation to governments from solar developers to make up for taxes that cannot be collected by the county due to state regulations that grant solar companies a tax abatement for the first ten years. 

Johnson said, “That’s not in our hands.”

Hightower told Johnson, “It will be if we have zoning regulations.”

Hightower asked about having a presentation about what they can do for the county. 

County Counselor Gary Thompson said learning about what values the solar companies could bring to Linn County would help. 

Planning and Zoning Director Darin Wilson said that he had heard that other counties had received fire equipment, financial assistance for schools, and a lot of other things. 

Thompson said that if those things were offered by a utility that it would be put into a signed PILOT agreement. Once the agreement is signed, that is a definite deal.

McCullough said, “I’m just trying to be real, what is the most important thing it can do for the county if it comes here.”

Hightower and McCullough directed Wilson to have the solar regulations ad hoc committee continue to review regulations. Johnson requested that the committee decide when they want to have the public forum.      

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