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Johnson County will reconsider solar farm rules that are among the strictest in the country

Wind turbines turn behind a solar farm in Rapshagen, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.
Michael Sohn
Associated Press
Wind turbines turn behind a solar farm in Rapshagen, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.

An energy company is interested in building a huge array of solar panels in western Johnson County and eastern Douglas County. But regulations passed last year by the Johnson County Commission have been criticized as being so unfriendly that they would discourage solar development entirely.

After a four-hour public hearing of speakers solidly in support of solar energy development, the Johnson County Commission voted to send proposed solar farm regulations back to the county planning commission with suggestions that would make them less restrictive.

The 6-1 decision, with Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara the lone vote against, takes aim at three proposed rules that govern:

  • how big a solar farm could be,
  • how long it could be in operation
  • and how close it could be to a city limit.

Those three items were made more restrictive during a politically charged planning commission meeting late last year and have since been criticized as being so unfriendly that they would discourage all solar development in the county.

Year-long debate

The county planning department began working on the regulations for large-scale solar farms about a year ago, after learning Florida-based NextEra Energy was interested in building an array of panels in western Johnson County and eastern Douglas County.

The county did not have any rules for solar farms yet, and planners needed them on the books before any applications for specific projects could be considered.

After getting recommendations from a consultant and talking to industry sources, planning staff had recommended solar leases run for 25 years, at a maximum of 2,000 acres and no closer than one-and-a-half miles from a city’s limits.

But planning commissioners tightened that to 20 years of operation, 1,000 acres maximum and two miles from a city.

Those rules would have made it much more difficult for solar developers to get the financing for their projects, proponents said.

In remanding the rules Monday, county commissioners asked that the planning board reconsider the earlier set of rules, while adding some flexibility for extensions depending on individual circumstances.

Commissioner Becky Fast noted that large-scale hog farms and chicken farms can operate less than a mile from city limits. The commissioners also added some rules on battery storage facilities and asked planners to look into rules for new transmission lines that might be required.

The planning commission will take the regulations up again at a special meeting tentatively scheduled for May 10.

Commission discussion

On Monday, O’Hara first asked that the county commission approve the tighter regulations, saying, “We have 200 families out in western Johnson County that have made very large investments in their homes and we are upsetting the apple cart. I just want everyone to understand that this is industrial use.”

However, the six other commissioners voted against that.

Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said the rules should allow more flexibility for individual situations.

“I do not think one size fits all,” he said.

In a series of votes, the commission then sent the rules back, with specific instructions on their preference for the less restrictive rules.

With one exception, the votes were the same each time with only O’Hara voting against. The commission was unanimous in asking for more study of rules for transmission lines.

Public comment

Commissioners had scheduled the public hearing and meeting for the Embassy Suites Conference Center in Olathe, expecting a large turnout.

Some 37 people spoke, virtually and in person, almost all of whom favored friendlier solar regulations. Some were members of families who may benefit from solar panels on their property.

Landowner Donna Knoche, for instance, said, “As a part owner I should have the freedom to use my land as I see fit.”

She added that her family has been conscientious about using the land wisely.

“Solar farms are self-contained, do not use any water, don’t give off any hazardous materials and are non-toxic,” she said.

Mike Talboy of Shawnee called the planning commission’s rules the most restrictive in the country.

“Johnson County is smart, sophisticated and forward looking,” he said. “That is why people move here and why businesses desire to establish operations here. We know better than to buy into the absurd conspiracy theories that are being thrown out and disinformation that is being spread.”

Kelly Sime of Lenexa, a member of Mothers Out Front, a group concerned with climate change, urged rules that do not impede solar development.

“As a mother I want us to lead by example. Our children need climate action,” she said.

The few who spoke in favor of tighter regulations said they are not against solar power but feared the impact on neighboring property values and the loss of land that could be used for agriculture.

“You’re doing away with land that could be used for hay, for grain. There’s a world famine coming,” said Robert McCollum of Gardner, an apparent allusion to the ongoing war in Ukraine, which is one of the world’s biggest wheat producers. “We need to keep our coal plants and not ship them to China.”

This story was originally published on the Shawnee Mission Post.

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