Property rights were at the center of a debate about imposing a restriction on future solar farms in Union County.
It was standing room only at the Union County Commissioners special session on Tuesday to discuss proposed legislation that would declare the entire unincorporated area of Union County as a “Restricted Area in which the construction of any economically significant wind farm, any large wind farm, and any large solar facility is prohibited without further action by the Union County Board of County Commissioners.” Upon the request of the crowd, the meeting was relocated to the auditorium at the Union County Offices, 233 W. Sixth St.
“We’re here tonight to talk basically about the restricted area of the county,” said Commissioner Steve Robinson. “That is what was advertised, so my request to you all is to keep as close as you can to that topic.”
Meeting attendees were invited to speak for three to five minutes about Senate Bill 52 and a potential countywide ban of future solar projects. Township trustees were present, however no council or school board members in the local districts impacted by the solar projects addressed the commissioners.
Several property owners, including Ashley Beery, who have leased their land to the solar companies expressed opposition to the proposed legislation.
Beery, who was approached by Samsung, decided to lease about 1,000 acres of her land for the solar project because of health complications.
“There is no one to carry on the farm after me,” said Beery, who has a soybean farm on her land. “I cannot farm this farmland by myself.”
She added that farming has become more costly over the years, making it a risky occupation.
Beery said 50% of the soybeans planted in the U.S. in 2021 were exported out of the country.
“One hundred eighty billion pounds of food is wasted every year, which is 30 to 40% of the food supply,” she said. “Those statistics are right from the USDA.”
She added that research shows food waste is a leading cause of greenhouse gases.
“I know people are saying that taking away agricultural land means we are taking away food, but if you look at those statistics, we aren’t taking away anything. In fact, there’s an overabundance,” Beery said.
She added that the solar project allows her to turn her land back into a farming operation in the future if she chooses.
The proposed legislation to restrict future solar farms in the entire unincorporated area of Union County is based on a piece of state legislation.
In July 2021, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 52 into law, allowing county commissioners to create zones where certain solar and wind electricity generation facilities would be prohibited. It became effective in October 2021.
The legislation, however, also allows projects that are already in the power network’s new service queue, have received their system impact study from power networks and have paid the application fee by the effective date of the bill to be grandfathered in. Two projects have been approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board – Cadence Solar Energy Center, the majority of which is south of Route 47 and north of Route 347 between Yearsly and Storms roads, and Union Solar, near the intersection of Routes 31 and 739 in York and Washington townships.
Assistant Prosecutor Thayne Gray said the expansion of existing projects would be subject to regulations under Senate Bill 52.
The status of the Samsung Richwood Solar Project, which would be located between Magnetic Springs and Richwood, is unclear. Gray said Tuesday that the project has not applied with the Ohio Power Siting Board yet.
“This meeting is not about the Cadence Solar Project or the Union Solar Project, which have already been approved by the power siting board because they are not subject to Senate Bill 52,” Gray said. “And it’s not directly about the possibility of the Samsung Project or any other project because no other applicant has come forward to the county commissioners or filed with the power siting board.”
Many residents felt the proposed legislation would infringe on property rights and remove power from local authorities.
Ken Gordon of Jerome Township advised the county commissioners to “not adopt the resolution that takes away the power of our townships or our township elected officials and the rights of the private property owners.”
“This suggested resolution opens the door for further restrictions in the future. Think about 20 or 30 years down the road, how many amendments could be added to this new legislation from other state officials,” Gordon said.
Former county commissioner Steve Stolte of Paris Township said the blanket ban “is not in the best long-term interest of Union County, one of the fastest growing counties in Ohio.”
Stolte said he disagrees “with blanketing the county with a broad brush prohibiting solar and wind project construction in all unincorporated areas of Union County.”
“Such action removes any flexibility for your board or future boards of commissioners. It removes the ability of commissioners to negotiate with wind or solar project developers to maximize benefits to Union County and at the same time minimize detriments to our county,” Stolte said. “Such action strips the property owner rights of rural agricultural landowners.”
Stolte said the resolution would also “close the door on revenue sources to townships, schools or the county” as well as “jeopardize future economic development.”
The public sentiment was evenly split among the more than 20 speakers on Tuesday.
Residents, including Hayes Ingram of Raymond, said their property values are going to depreciate because of neighboring solar farm developments.
“Now, I understand the farmers and other people that they want to get value out of their land, and it’s their land to do what they want, but it’s also my land and property that is decreasing in value because of solar panels that are going to be put up across the street and next to my backyard,” Ingram said.
Those opposing solar projects stated concerns about drainage issues, construction traffic, appearance of solar panels and contamination of well water.
Stephanie Ross of West Mansfield said her home is being surrounded by solar farms, so her family supports Senate Bill 52.
“Right now, we have to stop and pause until actually (the commissioners) have time to put something together because once they submit an application to (the) Ohio Power Siting Board, (the commissioners) can’t do anything yet,” Ross said.
She added that if she would have known solar farms would be surrounding her home, she would not have purchased property there to raise her family.
“Why would I do that? Why would I surround them with solar panels? Why wouldn’t I want them to have beautiful fields to look at animals,” Ross said.
She added that solar companies would not agree to put in wildlife corridors.
“Although I see where you should be able to do what you want to do with your land, it’s harming somebody else because there’s no guidelines,” she said, receiving a round of applause. “I respect that you should be able to do what you want with your land, but it has to come with some kind of measures and there isn’t any right now. So, we have to put a pause until we can get there.”
Some speakers suggested the county commissioners make decisions about future solar projects on a case by case basis rather than ban them from the entire unincorporated area of Union County. Residents stressed that there should be guidelines in place for future solar farms if the county commissioners do not restrict areas, as there is concern about the northern part of Union County becoming saturated with solar farms.
The commissioners have not set a timeline to take action on Senate Bill 52.
If the county commissioners approve a resolution, it would not be effective until 30 days after it is adopted. The resolution would be subject to referendum. Gray said about 1,900 signatures would have to be collected countywide to put the petition on the ballot.
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