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New limits are being considered by Kansas counties ahead of a large solar project

Last Updated on 08th January 2024

Two Kansas counties are proposing new laws to limit the size and placement of solar farms in anticipation of one of the country's largest solar projects.


The West Gardner Solar Project, a 320-megawatt project on 3,500 acres in Johnson and Douglas counties in eastern Kansas, was unveiled by NextEra Energy Resources last year. Because of its closeness to key transmission lines and potential clients in Lawrence and Kansas City, the area is appealing.


Although the firm has not formally notified either county of its intention to build the project, both are taking steps to "get ahead" of what would be the area's first significant solar project and one of the country's largest.


Solar farms are currently unregulated in Johnson County. Douglas County requires special-use permits, although there are no size or setback requirements.


“It’s common practice for standards to exist for any significant land use,” said Tonya Voigt, Douglas County's zoning director. “There has been no discussion to prohibit utility-scale solar. Douglas County’s goal is to draft regulations that balance sustainability, environmentally sensitive lands, rural neighborhood impacts, community benefit, and overall impact on the community as a whole.”


Johnson County hired a consultant to create proposed laws requiring solar projects to acquire conditional use permits, which need a public hearing. A 20-year permission limit, a 2,000-acre project maximum, and a mile buffer from city limits were also advised by the consultant. Panels should also be at least 50 feet from the property boundary and 250 feet from neighboring homes, according to the experts.


Utility-scale solar arrays, according to Jay Leipzig, Johnson County's director of planning and development, were "never contemplated" when the county's current comprehensive plan was drafted in 2004. They are a different sort of development, according to Leipzig, that demands their own set of norms because they are neither agricultural nor industrial.


"That's why, before we get an application, we wanted to give the planning commission time to draft regulations," Leipzig explained.


Residents warned that a huge solar project would damage views and lower property values during two public sessions hosted by the Johnson County Planning Commission in September. Douglas County, which is home to the University of Kansas, has also hosted public forums to hear from people concerned about the project's potential consequences as well as those in favor of reducing carbon emissions.


“As we see more solar being developed in more places, we are seeing more and a wider variety of potential conflicts over land use,” said Sean Gallagher, vice president of state and regulatory relations for the Solar Energy Industries Association. Although landowners are frequently grateful for lease income for hosting solar arrays, it's a different story for individuals who live next door or down the road.


Communities must be reminded of the financial benefits that will accrue to them, such as tax revenue for schools and other local government services, lease payments to counter the volatility of agricultural income, and jobs. Gallagher claims that taking land out of agricultural cultivation for two or three decades can help the soil regain its health and fertility.


He advises the sector to listen rather than just talk. “Adjust your plans in response to communities. Some kinds of land are better avoided than developed.”


According to Gallagher, meeting President Joe Biden's aim of generating 45 percent of the country's electricity from solar panels by 2050 will necessitate solar panels being installed on half of one percent of all land in the lower 48 states. To get there, solar developers will have to become "smarter and more sensitive" about how and where they build installations.


NextEra objected to the proposed size and siting constraints in a statement filed with the planning commission, claiming that the accompanying expenses would render the project financially unviable. The corporation also took issue with the county's treatment of solar farms in comparison to other types of commercial growth.


Douglas and Johnson counties are still collecting information and writing ordinance text. The planning panel in Douglas County, where two more solar businesses expressed interest in creating a huge array over the summer, will have a third public hearing on Nov. 3 and may vote to send a recommendation to the county commission.


For the next few months, the Johnson County Planning Commission will continue to listen and deliberate. In October, the commission will hold two work sessions. At a public meeting currently scheduled for Nov. 16, more public feedback will be welcomed. Leipzig stated that he hopes to have language approved by the county commission by the end of the year.


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