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Highland County commissioners discuss alternative energy projects, SB 52 with Ohio Land & Liberty Coalition representative  

Credit:  Caitlin Forsha | The Highland County Press | Friday, May 27, 2022 | highlandcountypress.com ~~

Highland County commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and David Daniels met with Tony Zartman of the Ohio Land and Liberty Coalition Wednesday, May 25, as they spoke about alternative energy, property rights and the impact of these energy projects on local economies, counties and schools.

According to information provided by Zartman, the Ohio Land and Liberty Coalition is “an initiative of the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum, made up of farmers and landowners who are concerned about protecting their property rights.” The group believes “landowners and farmers should have the option to supplement their income through renewable energy by utilizing their land to better the community and future for generations to come.” Similarly, the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum promotes “clean energy transition, supporting free markets and protecting property rights.”

Zartman spoke about his background as Paulding County Commissioner for 12 years, which is how he said he became familiar with Ohio’s siting process as that county – like Highland – was targeted for alternative energy development. Unlike Highland’s solar farms, Zartman said wind farms were developed in Paulding County.

“When I left the commissioners office, the Conservative Energy Forum called me and asked me if I would be interested in helping them with their Land and Liberty project,” Zartman said. “When I was a commissioner, Paulding County developed six wind farms, and we have 255 turbines turning in Paulding County currently. That was all basically started after I became a commissioner, as far as the development and the idea process, and Senate Bill 213, as far as how they would be handled, with the PILOT [Payment in Lieu of Taxes] program and alternative energy zones.

“I’ve been through all of that multiple times with these developers. That’s why they asked me to join them, because they felt that I could come out and talk to commissioners help educate them on alternative energy and help them through the process with Senate Bill 52.”

As previously reported, the commissioners have already passed a set of policies for solar development in the county after SB 52 took effect (for more, see: https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/In-The-News/Article/Highland-County-commissioners-adopt-resolution-for-solar-development-policies-discuss-2022-budget/2/20/74183).

The Highland County commissioners gave Zartman a copy of their resolution on solar regulations, and he asked if they cared if he shared it with other counties.

“We already have,” Duncan said. “We’ve had other counties call us and say ‘what are you doing?’”

Daniels added that other counties have used their resolution as a guideline for their own legislation.

Zartman said that he accepted his current role to help “fight for property rights” as well as to “help other communities,” including commissioners and township trustees, to understand the benefits of alternative energy development.

“It’s an interesting process through the whole state,” Zartman said. “I know you guys have been through quite a bit, and I just really today we just wanted to talk to you about how you’ve handled things and what’s worked for you.”

Daniels said he didn’t “know that we can say that anything’s worked” for Highland County based on Senate Bill 52.

“The first projects, everything that’s grandfathered, were completely out of our hands,” Daniels said. “Post-52, we really haven’t had a project that has come to us and said, ‘we’re starting the process.’”

Daniels told Zartman he didn’t feel Highland County had “a whole lot of say” in the current projects grandfathered in under Senate Bill 52.

“You stop and you look at how things have happened here, and I’m not exactly sure, with the projects that we’ve got slated here, that we had a whole lot of say in the matter,” Daniels said. “We’ve got projects here that by the time it actually got to a point where we were made aware that land was being leased and that these projects were being fully developed, it was ‘we’re in the last turn heading for home.’ So we really didn’t have a whole lot to, I guess, up front to deal with.”

Daniels and Britton both said the county tried to take into considerations the concerns of residents they’ve heard at public meetings and hearings when developing the resolution of guidelines for developers moving forward post-Senate Bill 52.

“We were definitely looking at both sides of the aisle here,” Britton said. “We tried to make sure that the landowners still had their rights and that their neighbors had their rights.”

Zartman said that property rights are a big issue when discussing solar or wind development.

“I’ve talked to so many commissioners across the state,” Zartman said. “They are all diehard Republican, conservative commissioners who firmly believe in property rights until the wind farm or the solar farm is their neighbor, and then they’re in great opposition.

“I tried to talk to them about well, how do you weigh property rights as far as the landowner who has this large piece of land, this large parcel, and wants to lease it to the developer, but a neighbor butts up against it and the adjacent parcel is in opposition. How do you weigh that?”

He asked that hypothetical question of Highland County commissioners as well.

“What we tried to do in our resolution was we put in some setback requirements that I’m sure that property owners – nonparticipating property owners – probably do not see as adequate,” Daniels said. “But I think that what we tried to do was recognize that I don’t want this right up against my house. You always say, well, what’s the right number? Well, we chose, and if it’s the wrong number, well, then we can talk about that. But we put in setbacks, we put in percent of acreage covered in a township.

“We said that you couldn’t put more than eight percent of the total landmass of the township behind the fence in a solar project, so we’ve limited it to some degree. And I still think that there’s room for argument with that. Is that the right number, the wrong number, should it be more, should it be less?”

Zartman told commissioners that the proposed Oak Run Solar Project may end being “the largest in the United States,” taking up as many as 10,000 acres in Madison County, which “certainly would go against your eight percent for a township.”

“I look at that, and I think it’s great for the schools,” Zartman said. “Everybody that’s in that taxing district is going to make out so well. But I also look at the other side, of the people that are going to be living there next to that. That’s a massive change in their community. For me to admit that I would struggle with that – I don’t admit to much anymore, but I would admit, that would be a struggle for me.”

As previously reported, the siting process and the impact of SB 52 were discussed during the March 30 commission meeting, as commissioners heard a presentation from Ohio Power Siting Board representatives. During that meeting, Britton asked about how developers are to be informed on the regulations at the local level. Julie Graham-Price of the OPSB said that result of SB 52 is “still a little bit of a gray area.”

Commissioners indicated Wednesday that they are still frustrated with that aspect of Senate Bill 52, since there is no clear way of knowing when a potential developer will take the county’s regulations into consideration.

“We’ve asked, when do our concerns come into the process as it stands now, and their response was, we would hope that the developer would understand that you’ve got your own processes,” Daniels said. “There’s nothing that’s outlines that when the developer goes to the Power Siting Board, when they start their application process.”

Daniels added that the county has heard “that there are other projects being considered, although we don’t know that right now,” as Duncan said they haven’t received any “formal notification.”

Daniels also told Zartman that his opinion is “the energy policy of the state of Ohio should be the purview of the state of Ohio.”

“If there are special circumstances or special considerations that need to be made, as far as the siting of these projects are concerned, then that needs to take place at the siting board, and they need to go through and with the best science say these are things that we need to take into consideration,” Daniels said. “Without that, you’ve got 88 different counties that can weigh in on it, and 1,300 different townships that have the opportunity to weigh in on it.

“We obviously are given the ability to say no to a project, but then we talk to those individual landowners that have decided to exercise the rights that they have as property owners to enter into those lease agreements, then you start saying, ‘OK, now we’re picking and choosing who can benefit from their property and who can’t.’”

Zartman agreed that there are issues with Senate Bill 52, calling it “some of the worst legislation ever passed.”

“That’s one of the problems as far as on the developer side, is that they have already invested so much time and effort and dollars before it ever comes before the Board of Commissioners for approval or denial,” Zartman said. “Personally, Senate Bill 52, in my opinion, is some of the worst legislation ever passed.

“I agree that it should be at the Power Siting Board, 100 percent. Our wind farms were all built with the Power Siting Board being the controlling authority. The only thing that we had was the ability to designate how they would be taxed, and at the time, without that PILOT, they wouldn’t have developed because it wasn’t economically feasible for him. I think the situation is changing now. I think that some solar projects would develop with or without a PILOT. It’s becoming economically beneficial for them.”

In response to a question from Daniels about environmental studies and assessments prior to the development of the wind farms in Paulding County, Zartman said their county commission had “a great working relationship” with the wind developers.

“They were in our office bi-weekly, giving us updates, talking to us from day one,” Zartman said. “When they started coming into the county, and looking, they came to us and said ‘this is what we’re thinking’ before they started leasing land. We had a great working relationship with them.

“For us as a county to come up with those studies on our own, it would never have happened. The Power Siting Board was an organization that we put our trust in 100 percent.”

Zartman added that he still feels they “made the correct decision in our community,” with Paulding County seeing financial benefits and not seeing opposition from residents to the extent that Highland County is.

“We don’t have any opposition to wind or solar in our community because of the benefits that everybody has seen from these projects,” Zartman said. “They recognize the benefits, and they realize that our schools are doing so much better than they were before.”

Daniels asked if Paulding County had “opposition pre-development.” Zartman said that “a group came in from out of state trying to get an opposition group organized” when the first wind farm was being developed, but the commission strongly supported the developments and the opposition group never “fully established.”

“We recognized the fact that if we wanted this development, we really needed to support it as the Board of Commissioners,” Zartman said.

Daniels asked Zartman how he “would quantify” the benefits he claimed for Paulding County. Zartman discussed the impact the county and schools have seen as a result of the PILOTs from the wind farms.

“In 2009 when I took office, Paulding County was basically going to be bankrupt without any severe cuts and/or additional ways to have revenue,” Zartman said. “January 1, 2009, every department took a 25-percent across-the-budget, across-the-board cut.

“The commissioners, we donated portions of our salary back to the general fund for three years. But 2009, we also had the potential for these wind farms to be developed. We put our time in, and we tried to do our due diligence and educate ourselves on wind farms. But it became abundantly clear that this was going to be our investment in the community that was going to make a difference.”

Zartman added that Paulding County is “primarily 100-percent farmland” and extremely flat.

“As basically an agricultural community who has no way to sustain or keep our youth, as they graduate high school, within the county, we saw it as a way to make changes – a way to help not only the county but also the other benefactors in those taxing districts,” Zartman said.

Zartman told commissioners that when Paulding County first began receiving PILOT payments, county offices were able to operate five days a week instead of four as they had been. The next year, county employees received raises for the first time in seven years, and in the third year, they got “substantial raises to bring them up to where they should be with the private sector.”

“Currently, the general fund rainy day account – without COVID money – was more than the annual budget,” Zartman said.

For schools in Paulding County, which Zartman said “averaged about 57 percent” of the PILOT payments, they also saw an immediate impact.

“Those funds coming in allowed them to hire additional teachers,” Zartman said. “Our student-to-teacher ratio was some of the highest in the state, and now we’re probably some of the lowest.

“We’ve got college courses in high school that we didn’t have before. We’ve got after-school activities that they couldn’t ever think of before. The students are now coming out of there with a real education that the schools have been able to turn around a process where we didn’t know if they were going to be able to survive to now being some of the best schools in the state because of these developments.”

Zartman added that the wind farms have also helped from an economic development standpoint.

“Because of the development of the wind farms, and the money that’s now able to use in that taxing district for parks and other activities funding economic development, we now have other industries starting to look at our communities and starting to build,” Zartman said. “Our graduating students, we now have a much higher percentage staying in the county instead of relocating out of state.

“We didn’t fix the problem, but we’ve certainly helped it. And if it wouldn’t be for this development, we wouldn’t have had the money to do it. It’s just night and day’s difference for our community, and right now, if you ask anybody on the street what they think of the developmental tell you that they love it, because it’s reduced their taxes and they can see the benefits.”

Zartman asked if Highland County had granted PILOTs to solar projects thus far, to which commissioners said yes.

“I think we’ve really tried to take the radical rationale and tried to put that in perspective, as we’re moving forward with all these projects,” Britton said. “I think I’ve stated this before, but there’s two sides to every story. There’s land rights. There’s all these different obstacles that we’re trying to deal with it.

“I truly believe that land rights kind of somewhat outweighs some of the other complaints that we get, but when we put our rules and regulations together, we tried to make sure that we were paying attention to both sides.”

Following their discussion, Zartman thanked commissioners for the feedback and invited them to contact him if they “ever need help talking to landowners or trustees.”

For more from Wednesday’s meeting, see the story at: https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/In-The-News/Article/Commissioners-proclaim-May-as-Mental-Health-Awareness-Month-host-CHIP-CDBG-public-hearings/2/20/79536.

Source:  Caitlin Forsha | The Highland County Press | Friday, May 27, 2022 | highlandcountypress.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

The copyright of this article resides with the author or publisher indicated. As part of its noncommercial effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Send requests to excerpt, general inquiries, and comments via e-mail.

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