The Reno County Planning Commission will take up discussion of creating limited countywide zoning to address potential future commercial wind and solar developments, officials said this week.
It just may be a while.
Residents living near land leased by wind developers expressed appreciation for the commitment, but said that the delay leaves them unsettled. Particularly since a majority of the Reno County Commission said they would not impose a moratorium on energy conversion system development.
Bush offers limited direction
Reno County Commission Chairman Bob Bush advised the planning commission during a recent meeting that, while they’ve taken no formal vote on it, the county commission is interested in a limited zoning overlay for unzoned portions of the county.
“As you know, the unzoned areas don’t want full zoning,” Bush said. “A couple of years ago, the commission, before I was on it, brought it up. They packed the place with people who don’t want it. However, with wind energy and some of the industries discussed, a good example is the chicken rending plant as well as chicken farms … we might be at the point people will listen to some level of zoning specific to those industries.”
Bush said he told the planning board at the beginning of its June 20 meeting: “take a break and rest up from all the work they’ve put in.”
“I want them to get caught up on other cases that are pending and, when they’re ready, to have a discussion among themselves about zoning, overlay zoning or spot zoning, and what they want to recommend for unzoned areas of the county going forward.”
He told board members to go in the direction the planning board wanted.
“We at the commission would love to hear it, but we’re not going to micromanage that or set any deadlines,” Bush said. “One commissioner talked about nine months, but there is no deadline. I want them to take their time and do it right once. When you have to go back and fix things, it gets messy real fast.”
When one of the planning commissioners asked whether the board should come up with a list of proposed restrictions and send that to the county commission for feedback, Bush said he’d prefer the board “get back to us when a plan is in place.”
“We’re not in a hurry on this,” Bush reiterated. “But we don’t need a moratorium. We have a system in place that it showed through the NextEra CUP application that it works. If one (a new permit application) were filed tomorrow, they’d get through the process and do an excellent job, whether it’s extending a shed or a wind farm. We don’t need a moratorium. I made clear that it was off the table as far as I’m concerned and Commissioner (Ron) Sellers is concerned.”
Only about the eastern third of the county is currently zoned, however. That means commercial wind turbines – as well as a solar farm, large confined livestock facilities or even a landfill – can go up through most of the county without having to meet any public notification or property setback requirements. No conditional use permit would be required.
While acknowledging that, Bush said he’s still not concerned because “we don’t see or hear anything on the horizon” and the last effort by NextEra took more than two years.
Planning Commission Board Chair Lisa French said she expected the body to take up the zoning issue in “the next two or three months.”
“We found out technically is not an overlay, but a limited zoning district,” French said. “It’s a different kind of zoning. At this point, we have several things that need to be worked out.”
The commission and county staff put other zoning applications on hold pending resolution of the NextEra application for it proposed Pretty Prairie Energy Center, which they now need to take up.
“We have only one person working in the Planning and Zoning Department, so we can’t get too extravagant with things we want to look at,” French said. “We have to be mindful of that. We’ll probably look into energy issues and then there might be an additional two or three (other industries) in there that are part of the discussion.”
She agreed with Bush that there’s no immediacy because no developments are on the horizon.
“I understand people are anxious to pin it down, but don’t think anything is imminent,” she said. “I think we have plenty of time. The other thing is, we have procedures in place to deal with it.”
At the same time, French confessed having the proposed zoning in place before the NextEra application “would have been a better process.”
“It became a very emotional issue, and it’s difficult to come up with good, solid regulations,” she said. “I don’t think the ones we have are bad. It’s just that they weren’t just right. It’s difficult to make changes by doing it with a conditional use permit and negotiating that. It’s not perfect.”
Drafting new countywide zoning districts will be a different process than how the NextEra application was handled, French said.
“We’ll probably come up with some kind of agreement on what the Planning Commission would like to see,” she said. “We may have a study session with the county commission when we get it hammered out, to make sure we’re on the same page. We want to make sure we’re doing something the county commission will stand behind once it’s done and that makes sense to the planning commission as well.”
They won’t hold public hearings, but will likely take public input as well, French said.
The limited zoning would not impose building codes or other such regulations on development, but would require the issuance of conditional use permits by the county to allow the regulated developments.
It could include setbacks distances for turbines from buildings or property lines, as well as requirements that landowners within a certain distance of a proposed turbine receive a notification to object or support the location.
One of the homeowners behind the push for better regulations said she believes there is a risk in waiting, particularly if the commission won’t impose a moratorium.
“It think it’s good they want to move forward with it,” said Kristina Horsch. “It’s a positive step and very encouraging. But we need it sooner than later, because if a wind company decided to put in a conditional use permit right now, we’d be right in the same place we already were. I don’t think anybody wants to do that again.”
She also hopes that the planning board is looking for and willing to accept community input.
“The community worked very hard and has done a lot of research,” she said. “We worked hard on seeing what other communities have that have been successful with industrial wind… I hope they consider it.”
She suggested the commission look at other zoning issues besides wind, but take up wind first.
“I think the process did work,” Horsch said. “But I think it could have been easier for everyone, for the developer, the community and the county if we already had proper zoning in place. The developer might have succeeded. I don’t think it would have been such a battle if we had zoning. If the community is involved in its development, they’re much more likely to have a successful project in the future.”
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