Johnson County advances first-ever solar farm rules, leaving both supporters and opponents upset

Johnson County solar farm

The Johnson County Planning Commission on Tuesday approved a set of regulations governing utility-scale solar farms, the first of their kind in county history. Supporters of a proposed solar farm project outside Gardner say the new regulations are too restrictive, while opponents of the project are angry any allowances have been given at all. Image of solar array used on Creative Commons license.

The Johnson County Planning Commission on Tuesday approved regulations that have been dubbed some of the most restrictive in the country for solar-generated electricity farms, pleasing just about none of the spectators at the two-hour meeting.

Supporters of the proposed solar farm said the rules were a disappointment and “not our desired result,” while opponents expressed anger that any arrays of the photovoltaic panels would be allowed at all in the unincorporated western part of the county.

“Have a good night as you destroy our rural part of our county,” said Sharmen McCollum of Gardner after being told the commission would not accept more comments on the solar farm regulations.

Commissioner Jim Neese, who ran the meeting, rebuffed efforts by McCollum and others who attempted to speak during the public comment period after the vote had already been taken.

The commission held a public hearing last month on the matter and has accepted comments from attendees at previous meetings. But the comments were closed Tuesday and listeners were told the commission would only hear views on issues not related to solar farms.

Growing opposition

The commission has been months at work writing regulations for utility scale solar farms after being approached by Florida-based NextEra Energy.

NextEra proposed its West Gardner Solar Project for an area just outside Gardner that might have covered as much as 2,000 acres in southwest Johnson County, continuing into Douglas County.

The project would feature clusters of photovoltaic panels positioned above natural ground cover. If built in its entirety, it would be the largest solar facility in Kansas.

The project had the support of some landowners, particularly those who planned to allow NextEra to use their land and would benefit financially.

But some neighbors have objected, saying the panels would ruin the beauty of that rural part of the county, and that land could potentially be destroyed by herbicide and pollution from the used panels.

Recently, the issue has become more politicized, with some Republicans urging solar opponents to show up at meetings to cheer and clap.

There was some of that Tuesday.

Roughly 25 people came to widely spaced chairs in the hearing room and the hallway, and some opponents did clap and post signs on the windows facing into the commission chambers. But without public comments, it was mostly a low-key event.

Regulation details

After a brief discussion and some questions to staff, planning commissioners voted Tuesday to approve rules that are restrictive than those proposed at earlier meetings.

The permit life term for solar farms was reduced from 25 years to 20, the maximum area for such projects cut in half from 2,000 acres to 1,000 and the closest a solar farm could get to a city limits is 2 miles, up from one and a half.

That two-mile buffer zone, particularly, has a big impact on the amount of land in unincorporated Johnson County that would be available for future solar farm projects.

Also having an impact is the recent annexation by the city of De Soto of more than 6,000 acres of the former Sunflower Army Ammunition plant property, where another developer had been eyeing a separate solar farm project.

Last month, the De Soto City Council unanimously voted to annex that portion of land. The move doubles the size of that city, and with the solar regulations approved Tuesday, would also slash the amount of land available for solar development down to 10,391 acres.

By contrast, the one-and-a-half-mile buffer would have left about 20,000 acres available for solar development.

In voting for the regulations, commissioners also approved rules that would require additional setbacks if an adjacent property not in the solar project was surrounded on two or more sides, or more than half of the exterior property line.

What happens next

The commissioners present voted 7-1 to accept the regulations, with Commissioner Lindsey Grise abstaining.

The regulations now go to the county commission for a study session Thursday, Jan. 20, followed by consideration at its regular meeting Feb. 3.

County commissioners could choose to remand them, or even change them, with more public comment likely.