After being told it would have little impact on permit applications for those wishing to pursue alternative energy projects in Piatt County, the county board on Aug. 8 decided against putting advisory referenda regarding solar and wind energy on the November ballot. The non-binding ballot questions would have gauged the opinion of residents as requests for solar projects roll in.
In the case of solar farms, there was also concern that waiting until after the November election could kill a potential project before a vote could be taken on a potential permit. Three companies have applied to construct solar farms in the county, including a 3 MW proposal from US Solar that has already been reviewed by the county zoning board of appeals.
“I just don’t want it to de facto kill the (solar) program by postponing it,” said county board member Ray Spencer at the board’s monthly meeting last Wednesday.
Pre-application for state energy credits begins Nov. 1, shortly before the Nov. 6 election for a launch of the new Future Energy Jobs Act, scheduled to begin on Jan. 15 of next year. There is concern that waiting until after the election to vote on permits could diminish US Solar’s chance of getting approved for credits in the initial round of applications.
“If we don’t get a project in the pipeline, chances are we won’t have a chance of having a project in the county, at least for the initial round,” added Spencer.
County Board Chairman Al Manint, who said the idea of advisory referenda came out of zoning board discussion, said he has received calls from people against the placing of solar panels and wind turbines in the county, and noted that diligence is needed to protect “the richest farmland in the state.”
“If we have our farmland taken up with (solar) panels, where would our crops come from?” he added.
State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades pointed out that, no matter the vote in November, the county could not completely outlaw solar panels and wind turbines, but could put permitting processes in place with or without a referendum. Solar and wind amendments will likely be considered by the zoning board of appeals on Aug. 23.
“Under the zoning rules in the county’s code, people have the right to petition the county to allow these solar farms or wind farms to be placed in various locations of the county,” said Rhoades. “It’s all part of a due process and the right to be heard, so you have to take each of these applications individually.”
Although the final decision would still be up to the county board, Rhoades added “people are entitled to have that process, so you can’t eliminate it altogether.”
Spencer also saw an advisory referendum as a public relations problem, especially if the vote goes against wind or solar and the county board eventually permits it.
It was noted that, taken on a case-by-case basis, proposals for projects on less productive farmland may be more appealing.
County board member Bob Murrell felt the issue had been answered when constituents recommended on a previous ballot that the county keep a 20-acre minimum for rural residences, something aimed at limiting unplanned areas of housing that would take away productive farmland.
“They’ve already given us the authority and responsibility to protect the farmland we have, and I know there’s big dollars dangling out there for property owners and the county, but it’s short term. We really need to protect the land for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It’s our responsibility,” said Murrell, adding that public input on the issue can be obtained by board members more directly from their constituents without a non-binding ballot question.
The board eventually voted down motions for advisory referenda that would ask if solar and/or wind farms should be “built upon farm lands located within Piatt County?” The vote was 4-2 against on the solar resolution, with Manint and Randy Shumard voting “yes.” Manint was the only one to vote in favor of placing the wind question on the ballot.
County Zoning Officer Keri Nusbaum said three applications have been made for possible solar farms in the county, but no applications to this point for wind turbines.
Board members did endorse an advisory referendum question asking the public their opinion on the subject of possible statewide taxes to help fund state pension obligations.
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