County’s first solar farm approved

Board of Zoning Appeals approves conditional-use permit

By Jennifer Woods - [email protected]

“Fayette Solar” will most likely be the first solar farm to be created in Fayette County following an approval from the county Board of Zoning Appeals by a 3-2 vote. The approval shows a majority of the board believes the solar project is meeting all conditions set forth in a conditional-use permit.

The company that would be designing and operating the proposed Fayette Solar farm is National Grid Renewables. The farm is proposed to be located on 435 acres of land rented from a local landowner.

That land is located in southeast Perry Township between Bonner Road, Barrett Road, Beatty Road and the Highland County line. It is estimated to be a 47.5 megawatt (MW) solar energy development.

Essentially, a solar farm is an area typically consisting of multiple acres of land that tends to use ground-mounted solar panels (which are photovoltaic panels, also known as PV panels). Due to the amount of land needed for these farms, they are commonly found in rural locations. The specific location needs to be near enough to an electrical system that can handle the project, so it can’t be located in any random spot.

The meeting was held recently at Miami Trace for it to allow for more room in anticipation of members of the public attending.

Community members who were present asked various questions and stated concerns with the project, including topics such as harmful material that could leak from solar panels, loss of farmland for young people that may want to farm one day, loss of food source, not wanting the project in their area, and once one company comes in then others will come in “like vultures.”

According to the board, the conditional-use permit is for this particular project only, not the entire county. So, any other companies that would want to come in for another site would have to apply for a conditional-use permit for that site as well.

A concern was brought up regarding residents potentially losing such things as WiFi or cellular service and who they would go to for reparation for getting service back.

The representative said, “I think there’s confusion among the public, and rightfully so, between renewable wind electricity and then solar panels. So, there actually is a lot of site inconsideration for wind projects with the structures that are like 550 feet in height. If that structure is put between a cell tower and a city, that could potentially cause issues to that cell service. In this case with solar panels, we’re talking a height of 15 feet, and it’s science that a height that low to the ground is not going to impact that cell signal. In terms of the EMF (Electric and Magnetic Fields)—in that degree, the 34.5 kilo-volt lines which run from those inverters—I believe it’s been shown that EMF dissipates within just a few feet of that line. So, there’s no widespread impacts. In addition, just like with the transmission lines running all throughout the county already, those would emit the same EMFs that this project does. This project, due to the lower voltage, would actually emit less.”

At one point during the discussion, at least two members of the public started questioning who created the zoning laws they were following, why it was being changed, if the zoning board consists of elected officials with authority to change the laws, etc.

Gary Reiterman, the chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals, explained, “the County Zoning Board (not the board of appeals) set up these conditional uses. So, they basically said, if you want to have a solar farm, these are the conditional uses that you have to have. That’s all we can do — we don’t make up the rules. All we are voting on tonight is Perry Township, this particular (project), that they’ve met all the conditional uses. They were set up ahead of time. Now, if they don’t, we can’t pass it.”

Following the explanation it was asked who set up the conditional uses the company had to meet. It was explained there is a whole list of requirements that must be met. Conditions had to be set as there were no considerations for solar farms in place yet.

During an interview with the Record-Herald, Fayette County Commissioner Dan Dean explained conditional uses are a part of any zoning ordinance.

According to Dean, zoning laws came from the Ohio Revised Code. In each area zoned—residential areas, commercial areas, highway service areas, agricultural areas—there are principal permitted uses for each type of area as there are certain uses that should always fit well within them (such as a farm within an agricultural area).

The areas are zoned to make sure the entities present won’t disrupt the area. For instance, residential zoning could stop a junkyard from being built next door to homes.

Then there are cases when something could fit in an area but doesn’t necessarily meet the principal permitted uses, such as a dog groomer wanting to work from their home. In these cases, conditional uses can be used to help accommodate different situations.

“It’s a fine line to having property rights, and what you want to do with your own property. ‘I own it, why can’t I do whatever I want with it?’ Well, you can to a point, but at the same time, you’re not supposed to harm your neighbor. And that’s why the solar farm was a difficult conditional use, and it had so many conditions put on it. So that, when it is constructed, it doesn’t infringe on the neighbors able to live a comfortable life where they’re at. And that’s always going to be a matter of opinion, so that’s why you have a lot of people upset,” said Dean.

As to altering an existing ordinance, Dean explained they are getting ready to start the process but it will take time.

“There are several public hearings whenever you change an ordinance or bring one into existence — the public has several opportunities to put in input on it. But you have to allow for a use somewhere in the code. So, we went to other counties and asked them what they were doing, and some of them sent us a list of conditions that they put on solar farms. We also asked them, ‘well what did you overlook? What would you put as a condition if you could now looking back?’ So that’s how we came up with the conditions that we proposed, the Zoning Board of Appeals looked at and the solar farm (company) agreed to abide to,” said Dean.

During the meeting, approximately two hours into the discussion, the board decided to enter executive session to discuss the matter privately. A member of the public, Jan Anderson, called out several questions as the board discussed the decision to enter executive session—questioning their reason, stating they had no reason to enter executive session, and that they are breaking the law by entering it.

Executive sessions basically allow a legal body to discuss a matter privately and to keep what is discussed private.

Reiterman explained the County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Daniel Drake advises them and said they could enter executive discussion.

Anderson started talking about Drake, and Reiterman explained, “I don’t want to argue tonight, please. He set it up for us—that’s what we’re going to do.”

After further argument from Anderson, Reiterman said, “We can discuss it, but we can’t vote on it (in executive discussion). We can’t even take an opinion on how (we’re) going to vote. We’re just going to ask questions among ourselves.”

Anderson further challenged the board for not having a reason to take executive session.

Reiterman said, “Dan Drake is the one that told us we could do this. He’s got a room ready for us. We’ve got one person that wants to have one, so we’re going to have it.”

After Anderson continued to claim they weren’t following the rules, Reiterman said, “Well, he’s the one that’s going to represent us in court if we get sued. So, I’m going to follow what he says.”

Upon being asked for comment by the R-H, Drake explained via email, “it is my understanding, and no one has suggested otherwise to the Prosecutor’s Office, that procedurally the meeting was conducted in accordance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations, in particular with the provisions of the Open Meeting law. The BZA is what is known as a ‘quasi-judicial’ body which is permitted to deliberate over matters in executive session but must take all formal action only in open or regular session. When the Board met in executive session to discuss the presentation and commentary from all the interested parties, it did so in accordance with that authority.”

After executive session, the board returned and took a vote, with three out of five voting that the company did meet the conditions set by the Fayette County Board of Zoning.

Dean said it is his belief that if National Grid Renewables abides by the numerous conditions placed on the solar farm, that it will not infringe on the neighbors and, if the company does not abide by the conditions, it will be held accountable.

Reach journalist Jennifer Woods at 740-313-0355.
Board of Zoning Appeals approves conditional-use permit

By Jennifer Woods

[email protected]