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Johnson County just approved looser regulations for solar farms. Here’s what they’ll allow

Solar panels on Chris Bohr’s farm in Martinsburg, Missouri. He received a USDA grant to help pay for the project.
Jonathan Ahl
Harvest Public Media
Solar panels on Chris Bohr’s farm in Martinsburg, Missouri. He received a USDA grant to help pay for the project.

Johnson County commissioners rejected solar farm rules from the planning commission that had been criticized as some of the most restrictive in the country. The new regulations open the door to a large project planned for Johnson and part of Douglas County.

Johnson County commissioners overruled the county planning commission Tuesday, favoring a less-restrictive set of regulations for solar farms that solar power advocates say is more friendly to the farms’ future development.

After a three-hour discussion and 36 comments from the public, the county commissioners rejected proposed rules recommended by the planning commission that had been criticized as some of the most restrictive in the country.

Commissioners ruled out several amendments, then voted 6-1 to put back in:

  • a 25-year term limit for conditional use permits for the farms,
  • a 2,000-acre maximum project area
  • and a 1.5-mile buffer from neighboring city limits.

The tighter rules recommended by the planning commissioner were supported by some nearby property owners with concerns about effects on their property values and the serenity and beauty of the countryside.
City officials in Gardner and Edgerton, which are near one proposed solar farm project, also had asked for a bigger buffer to allow their cities to spread and grow.

Some prominent county Republicans also spoke out against solar development on county farm land.

Planning commissioners and staff have studied utility-scale solar regulations for over a year after learning of some interest in developing solar farms in Johnson County.

Since the industry is new to the county, the regulations had to be written from scratch.

After working with a consultant, planning staff recommended the rules the county commission approved Tuesday. But the prospect of solar panels near their homes upset neighbors.

The planning commission then tightened the rules, requiring a shorter, 20-year project lifespan, maximum project area of 1,000 acres and a two-mile buffer from cities.

In April, the county commission sent the regulations back to the planning commission with recommendations they adopt the less restrictive ones, but planning commissioners declined to do so.

County commissioner Charlotte O’Hara was the most vocal opponent of the proposed solar rules.

She called the solar farm “heavy industrial use” and asked how Sedgwick County managed to prohibit wind farms.

“The counties in Kansas, it seems like they are saying no to some of these alternative energy projects and I am just wondering what is the process and the legal standing that we could say Johnson County is not appropriate for solar farms?” O’Hara said.

Jay Leipzig, Johnson County’s planning director, said that Sedgwick County had a temporary hold on wind development because of its many airports.

O’Hara’s was the only vote against the less restrictive rules. She also offered some amendments that would have limited larger projects to “brown fields” where other development might be difficult, such as the Sunflower Army Ammunition site. Those amendments failed.

Solar supporters outnumbered the other side during the public comment period by two to one, and several said they were members of Mothers Out Front, a climate action group.

“I’m coming here and asking you to vote for my kids’ future,” said Susan Alig. “The decisions that we make today in local meetings just like this one will control the climate that my children inherit.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Al Frisby, a retired science teacher from Merriam. “We know how to mitigate our climate crisis. We just need the fortitude to do more,” he said. “Science is our only hope for the future. Let’s get busy.”

On the other side, some argued that a large solar farm would mean a loss of character and services like broadband internet for people because it will limit population density.

“There are developers who want you to think that we should turn our state into a landscape of black glass and towering windmills,” Pam Ferguson of Eudora said. “And if you do so, the planet will be ruined.”

The commission’s vote sets general regulations for solar developers, not specific projects.

NextEra Energy, a Florida-based company, is making plans for a solar farm on Johnson and part of Douglas County, and some landowners have expressed interest in leasing their land. But there is no application yet.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Contact her at roxieham@gmail.com.
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