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Darke Co. residents express solar farm concerns – DCCPA cites no local control, zoning issues

DARKE COUNTY – A number of Darke County residents have recently expressed their disapproval of The Painter Creek Solar Project, proposed by Apex Clean Energy, Inc. (Apex), that is set to begin commercial operation in 2024. As it stand now, the pre-application for the project has yet to be submitted to the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) for approval.

The anticipated project footprint in Darke County is about 2,000 acres, and will produce a total capacity of approximately 165 megawatts (MW). The project will run adjacent to existing transmission lines on remote, privately held land. Apex states that, if a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) is approved, Darke County will see a revenue increase of approximately $1.1 million per year over the next 30 years.

A group known as the Darke County Citizens Preservation Association (DCCPA), among other residents, have voiced their dissatisfaction to the Darke County Commissioners, the boards of Greenville, Neave and Van Buren Townships, and their state representatives and senators. Top concerns relate to state government overreach into local communities, the destruction of productive farmland, and how the land will be properly zoned.

Vice President of the DCCPA, John Beard, explained that Darke County residents are not against renewable energy sources, but rather are concerned with the government practices used to secure approval for the placement of the panels.

“If building a solar industrial megaplex industrial plant in Darke County is a good idea for the local community, we need to take the time to make sure that land rights of farmers, land holders, and adjacent landowners are all respected in an equitable fashion,” said Beard. “If this is a good idea now, it will still be a good idea in three years when the state legislature has proper regulations in place for solar industrial megaplex electric plants.”

Beard went on to explain that the group supports House Bill 118 and Senate Bill 52, which are both geared toward slowing the development of solar and wind energy in the state. Both bills would set up a referendum process on solar and wind farms prior to the projects going before the OPSB. Beard noted that, for the time being, the group would prefer a moratorium.

In addition to a referendum, the bills would require developers to give 30 days’ prior notice to local governments before filing with OPSB. Local governments can then reject or require a public referendum, or allow eight percent of people who voted in the previous gubernatorial election to demand a referendum.

Keith Godown, a representative from the Neave Township Board of Trustees, stated that Neave Township is, similarly, not against green energy, but is concerned with the amount of prime agriculture land being used for the panels, and the overall negative impacts that the panels could have on the area.

“We are not against green energy, nor individual rights as property owners per say,” said Godown. “The concerns we have need to be addressed and understood before any solar farms are permitted.”

Godown went on to state that the citizens of Neave Townships should have a voice through a referendum, and decide as a township whether or not solar farms should be permitted.

Simply put, there are no laws or regulations currently in place that can stop someone from leasing their own property for solar development. HB 118 and SB 52 attempt to address public concerns related to the construction of solar panels near adjacent property, but as it stands now, landowners are largely free to do with their property as they see fit. Per OPSB rules, notices are sent to affected property owners, and hearings are held with local residents throughout the planning process. Residents then have the opportunity to submit complaints with the OPSB. To learn more about current projects, or the processes involved, visit https://opsb.ohio.gov. As mentioned, the Painter Creek project has yet to enter the pre-application phase with the OPSB, so residents will have an opportunity in the future to express their opinions.

Groups such as the Ohio River Valley Institute and the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum have stated it is difficult to not see where these issues come full circle in relation to property rights. If HB 118 and SB 52 pass, the referendum demand of only eight percent of previous gubernatorial voters can lead to a very “slippery slope,” one in which an incredibly small portion of local voters are able to push a vote to restrict the rights of individuals who wish to lease their property. Likewise, many statehouse Democrats, and a few opposing Republicans, view the bills as placing undo restrictions on citizens wishing to lease their land.

It’s important to recognize the significance of Apex’s proposed project for all residents, but it’s also equally as important to recognize where these bills will hinder the rights of individual landowners in the process. While adjacent property owners are required to sign Apex’s “good neighbor” leasing policy during the construction period, it still remains the decision of the individual landowner whether or not to sign. For more information about leasing property for solar farms, see the attached guide on the OSU Farm Office’s website: https://bit.ly/3wcZOlu

In relation to HB 188 and SB 52, Republican representatives make up all sponsors and cosponsors of the bills, but not all Republicans support the action. According to an Energy News Network report, Rep. Laura Lanese, R-Grove City, and Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, have expressed concerns related to the bills stunting economic growth in the state. Lanese said that the bills send the wrong message to companies wanting to move into Ohio, or open facilities across the state.

Other criticisms of the proposed bills cite their contradictory nature when compared to the siting requirements for other forms of energy. As it stands now, there is almost no local government control when it comes to siting natural gas, oil, coal, or nuclear facilities, and the projects are not subject to local referenda. In short, the issue is not unique to only renewable energy developments.

Another issue residents have is how the solar farms will be zoned. Currently, the proposed land is zoned as agriculture, similar to many solar projects throughout the state and country. According to the National Agriculture Law Center, Ohio law limits local zoning authority over “public utilities,” and counties and townships have practically no say in altering them.

For solar projects such as Apex’s, it is considered a “major utility facility” defined by Ohio Revised Code § 4906.01. This section deals with the OPSB and the siting of major utility facilities or economically significant wind farms. Ohio Revised Code § 4905.03(C) deals with public utilities defined as “regulated monopolies.” In Darke County, it would be AES Ohio (formerly DP&L).

In addition, Ohio Revised Code §§ 303.211(A), 519.211(A), states that localities have no authority to regulate, “the location, erection, construction, reconstruction, change, alteration, maintenance, removal, use or enlargement of any buildings or structures of any public utility…, or the use of land by any public utility or railroad, whether publicly or privately owned, or the use of land by any public utility or railroad for the operation of its business.”

In order to change this, the state legislature would have to pass monumental legislation that essentially reworks the way public utilities have been treated for many years. These issues are slightly addressed through HB 118 and SB 52, but seeing as the land for solar farms is largely designated as agriculture, developments in zoning laws are unlikely to change the course of the project.

Other concerns relate to the proper disposal and waste produced by solar panels. Currently, there are no concrete plans for how to dispose of out-of-date solar panels, and many have concerns about waste impacting local ground water and plant life. Solar panels typically have a lifecycle of anywhere from 20 to 30 years, and must be disposed of after that. The metals used to make solar panels, namely lead and cadmium, are prone to leaks after disposal. Leaks during operation are very uncommon, but after disposal, leaks have been reported. These issues have been repeatedly addressed in state houses throughout the country, with few-to-no suggestions coming forth for how to properly dispose of, or recycle, the panels.

While the fight is ongoing, these issues must be addressed at the state level. The project is still in its profiling stage, so residents will have their opportunity to express their approval or dissatisfaction in the near future.

Some state representatives are working to bring voices to those who are in opposition to the developments, but have also been met with considerable backlash. Currently, local property owners possess a majority of the power to make their own decisions about whether or not to lease their property for such ventures.