JoCo planners rebuff county commission’s urging to make solar farm rules less restrictive

Johnson County solar farm

The board of county commissioners had remanded proposed rules for utility-sized solar farms back to county planners. On Tuesday, the planning commission opted to keep much of their original recommendations intact. Image via Shutterstock.

A set of rules that would govern how utility-scale solar farms are planned in Johnson County was bounced back to the county commission Tuesday by planning board members, who insist their tighter regulations – and not the commission’s suggestions for less restrictive measures – are the right way to go.

Key Takeaways 

• On Tuesday, the Johnson County Planning Commission largely stuck to its earlier recommendations for industrial-scale solar farm regulations, sending the proposed rules back to the county commission.

• Renewable energy advocates say the proposed rules in Johnson County would be some of the toughest in the country and could make it practically impossible to build large-scale solar farms here.

• The final say now rests with the board of county commissioners, which is set to hold a special meeting about the proposed regulations in June.

In so doing, the Johnson County Planning Commission rejected most of the county commission’s recommendations made at a public hearing in April.

It’s the latest turn in a much-watched back-and-forth that has taken on political overtones as the county considers regulating a growing industry for which it currently has no guidelines.

County commission urged more lenient regulations

In April, the board of county commissioners remanded the regulations back to the planning commission, asking them to reconsider rules that had been criticized by renewable energy advocates as some of the toughest in the country, which could pose a hindrance to developers of solar facilities.

The planning document sets the ground rules for large-scale setups of photovoltaic panels that harvest solar energy.

The county currently has no such regulations on the booming new industry, just as several solar farms have been proposed for Johnson County and elsewhere in the Kansas City area.

Planning staff and the planning commission have worked for a year with a consultant to learn the particulars of how to regulate things like setbacks, permit length, decommissioning and proximity to cities.

But some neighbors of a proposed solar panel field in western Johnson County and part of Douglas County objected, worrying that the panels would ruin the rural beauty, cause heat islands, disrupt wildlife and cause a pollution hazard when they are torn out.

Industry experts have refuted most of those claims.The issue has also became politicized, with some of the county’s leading Republicans, including Sheriff Calvin Hayden, encouraging opposition to the solar farm proposal.

Ultimately, the planning commission set tighter rules after also hearing from officials in Gardner, Edgerton and Overland Park that they wanted a buffer zone large enough to allow those cities to spread and grow.

Planners set the buffer zone at two miles from a city boundary, a 20-year permit life and 1,000 acres maximum project area.

But the board of county commissioners sent those rules back, recommending they change it to a 1.5-mile buffer, 25-year term and 2,000 acres maximum.

Some planning commissioners frustrated

The planning commission on Tuesday declined to loosen the proposed solar farm restrictions.

They held firm with the term at 20 years, although allowing an automatic five-year extension for a solar facility in compliance with the rules.

Maximum project area stayed at 1,000 acres with possibility of a waiver and the buffer at two miles.

They also approved some less controversial suggestions from the county commission, calling for solar companies to pay for any specialized fire equipment needed, and planners to review the construction of power lines if they are required.

Some planning commissioners expressed frustration about the remand.

“With all due respect to the board of county commissioners, the planning commission is made up of nine unincorporated and three incorporated (areas where members are from). I think the board of county commissioners is six incorporated, one made of the unincorporated,” said planning commissioner Dave Johns, suggesting the commissioners should have given the proposals more consideration before sending them back.

County commissioners took quick votes on their remand without enough discussion, he said.

“It’s just not the right thing to do,” he added.

Planning Commissioners James Neese and Kelley Rast were most vocal about sticking to their earlier recommendations. But not every commissioner agreed. Planning Commissioner Randall Downing voted against the smaller project size.

“I bought gas this afternoon and I think we’re going to need all the power and other energy we can have in years to come,” he said, noting that a new company coming to the area might need a ready supply of energy. “I think we should be able to support whatever’s coming. I understand about the land but I think if we look toward the future we have to be prepared for it. The future is not going to be other forms of energy.”

Neese rebuffed staff during a discussion of the buffer, arguing that staffers misrepresented the amount of buffer the cities wanted for future growth.

At one point, he asked if staff members were going to try to re-sell the looser recommendations to the commission, essentially undercutting the planning board.

Few public comments

Unlike some previous meetings, the session Tuesday was not dominated by public comments.

A few people did speak, including Carrie Brandon of Eudora, who asked planners to be creative in seeking space for solar panels on rooftops of warehouses or parking lot canopies.

Lisa Huppe said her experience in real estate showed her the development would reduce the value of nearby homes.

However Jane Knoche, who has land to lease if one solar project goes through, said solar farms are another form of agri-business — one without noise, smells or intrusive strip malls.

What happens next: The county commission has the final say.

The item comes before that body again at a special meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. June 6 in the commission’s hearing room at the county administrative building in downtown Olathe.

Previously, the public meeting had been scheduled to take place at a nearby hotel, but that plan has changed.

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