Johnson County sets public hearing date for large-scale solar farm regulations

Johnson County solar farm

For the past year, county planners have been drafting rules for large solar facilities after a Florida company proposed building what could potentially be the biggest solar farm in Kansas near Gardner. The issue has garnered passionate opposition and support, and the county commission has now set a public hearing on the matter for April 4. Photo credit zak zak. Image used under a Creative Commons license.

In the next step of what has already become a contentious issue, Johnson County commissioners examined the county Planning Commission’s recommendations for the rules on large-scale solar farms Thursday.

The county commission only reviewed the recommendations and did not take any action, save to set a public hearing that commission Chairman Ed Eilert suggested could go on several hours and draw as many as 100 people, based on previous hearings and the volume of emails being received.

The hearing is set for 2 p.m. on Monday, April 4 and will be a hybrid of in-person and virtual comments.

The venue is planned for the Embassy Suites in Olathe to handle the expected crowd.

Want to find out more? Johnson County has compiled documents related to the proposed solar farm regulations here.

 

Residents wanting to give comments can email planner@jocogov.org.

Solar farm regulations debate

County planners have been drafting rules for large solar facilities for most of the past year, after being contacted by Florida-based NextEra Energy about a possible site in the county.

The planned West Gardner Project in southwest Johnson County would consist of rows of photovoltaic panels and was originally proposed for over 2,000 acres, making it potentially the largest solar farm in Kansas.

Since the county has never had a utility scale solar panel field, planners were tasked with writing appropriate rules for setbacks, decommissioning, buffers and the like.

The idea has been supported by farmers who see the solar panels as another form of farming income and by those who favor alternative energy. But opposition has arisen from neighbors who say the panels will ruin the scenic beauty of rural Johnson County and thwart the efforts of cities to annex and expand.

Some also feared environmental hazards such as chemical leaching from the panels into groundwater, though industry experts debunk that objection.

The issue also has become politicized, with some prominent county Republicans speaking out against it. At the public hearing in November with the planning commission, a noisy crowd interrupted the proceedings with onlookers and speakers heatedly expressing their displeasure.

After that hearing, the planning commission made some of its proposed regulations more restrictive. They limited the size of future solar farms to 1,000 acres and a 20-year term, with no waivers. Both those rules are more restrictive than the developer asked, as was the two-mile buffer zone from neighboring cities.

Those proposed regulations were what the county commission reviewed Thursday.

High number of comments

Commissioners have been receiving volumes of comments since then.

Commissioner Shirley Allenbrand said she recently “got an earful” from a farmer who said, “who are you to tell me what I produce on my land and who are you to tell me I have to sell my land to any developer to develop housing? I should have the right to produce my own. This is my way of producing for my grandkids and I can keep my land.”

Allenbrand said, “I think we have to be very, very careful how we dictate that to a landowner.”

At the meeting Thursday, commissioners listened to a presentation and reasoning from planning staff.

In the future, Eilert said he’d also like to see some of the most persistent questions about the effects on stormwater runoff, hazardous materials and other objections answered by a disinterested expert before the next meeting.

Commissioner Becky Fast also requested someone from the Kansas Corporation Commission speak about the power pool and what effect a large solar facility could have on it.

Peggy Trent, the board’s legal advisor, warned commissioners that the commission is performing a quasi-judicial function in its decision on the regulations and therefore the expert information should be coming to them all together, and not through separate meetings of their own.

County staffers have set up a website to collect all solar-related submissions in one place, she said.

After the public hearing, the commission has the option to endorse the recommendations or send them back to the planning commission with recommendations for change.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist who frequently reports for the Post and other Kansas City area publications. You can reach her at roxieham@gmail.com.