When it comes down to it, what makes solar panels or wind turbines any different than a hog barn or a manure lagoon?
Ohio’s agricultural commodity groups spoke out against legislation that proposes giving more local control in the approval process for utility-scale wind and solar projects.
The Ohio Pork Council, Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, Ohio Dairy Producers Association and Ohio Poultry Association warned against passing legislation that would infringe on farmers’ private property rights.
“We understand and can appreciate the concerns of neighbors regarding impacts to their own properties caused by the development of wind or solar projects; however, Ohio’s Power Siting Board is equipped to address those concerns,” the groups wrote in joint testimony submitted in opposition to Ohio Senate Bill 52 during the fifth hearing on the bill May 25.
The Ohio Soybean Association and Ohio Farm Bureau Federation also testified against the bill that’s dividing the state’s agricultural community.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Sens. Rob McColley, of Napoleon, and Bill Reineke, of Tiffin, was amended again May 25, less than a week after it went through significant changes during another committee hearing.
McColley said his office and Reineke’s office met with some opponents of the bill after the hearing May 19 to see if they could find some common ground. The result was the new sub bill that was accepted by the Senate Energy committee May 25.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce and Ohio Business Roundtable were involved in the meeting. When pressed by Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, as to who else was invited, McColley said no environmental groups were in the meeting, but representatives from developers were in the room. It wasn’t clear if anyone from the renewables industry was in attendance or invited.
“We’re willing to have a meeting with anybody, but having a 100 person meeting or a 50 person meeting of anybody who could possibly have an interest in this bill is not necessarily going to resolve anything,” McColley said.
The new sub bill would put the local control at the county level, instead of leaving it up to the townships. A developer for a wind or solar project would have to hold a public meeting before the county commissioners.
The commissioners then have three options: do nothing, pass a resolution banning the project or pass a resolution limiting the geographic area of the project.
If the commissioners do nothing for 90 days after the public meeting, that means the project is approved. The project would then move on to the Ohio Power Siting Board process.
County commissioners could also pass a blanket ban on solar and wind development within the county or create energy development districts to designate certain areas where renewable projects were welcome.
“In my view, it strikes a significant balance early on enough while also giving, as far as whether a project would proceed or not, but also gives locals a meaningful seat at the table in the OPSB process to be able to address some of their concerns,” McColley said.
Previous versions of the bill proposed allowing townships to create energy development districts and allowing local residents to vote directly to approve individual solar or wind projects via a referendum. Currently, utility-scale solar and wind projects are approved entirely at the state level by the Ohio Power Siting Board. Residents are allowed to give five minutes of testimony during a public hearing, but most projects are certified by the board regardless of significant public opposition to it.
The balancing act
The legislation is splitting the state’s farmers into two camps – those that value property rights and those that value local control.
Leasing land for solar or wind developments has been a boon for some farmers and landowners. Offers range from $700 an acre to $2,000 an acre to lease land for 30-40 year, and then, allegedly, return it back to its original state. Some farmers plan to use the stable income from solar leases as a retirement plan, while being able to keep the land for future generations.
Farmers who support the legislation, like most other supporters, feel the current process for public input is inadequate. But they’re also concerned about the impact neighboring renewables projects would have on their land. Joanna Clippinger, a Preble County farmer, said during her testimony in March that “a person’s rights end when it impacts the rights of others.”
That argument has been bothersome to many in the ag community, who worry that allowing this type of local control targeting land use could be a slippery slope. When it comes down to it, what makes solar panels or wind turbines any different than a hog barn or a manure lagoon?
“Our main concern centers on the potential for other local referendum processes that go beyond wind and solar projects could be established, which would create additional burdensome rules and regulations on agricultural practices that are already highly regulated,” said Ryan Rhoades, president of the Ohio Soybean Association, in his testimony on SB 52.
The joint testimony submitted by the Ohio livestock and poultry groups acknowledged the need for better processes for public input. They could support amendments to the Ohio Power Siting Board process to improve public notice and allow for additional input, but the legislation as it stands goes too far, the groups wrote.
Ohio Farm Bureau’s official policy “recognizes the rights of landowners to enter into effective partnerships and agreements with developers to responsibly use land and resources to develop energy transportation, generation and distribution projects.” At the same time, they know there is a concerning lack of local input early on in the development process, Reese said in her testimony.
She proposed there be more opportunity for public input prior to the project application being filed with the Ohio Power Siting Board. There would be an information meeting and a local input conference, where the applicant would have to respond to comments from local officials and residents.
She also proposed greater public notice about proposed developments and for the Ohio Power Siting Board to create standards for the decommissioning process of renewables facilities.
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