Union County weighs using solar restriction power given by new law

By: - February 24, 2022 3:40 am

Credit: Xuanyu Han/Getty Images.

Two solar farms planned for Union County have gotten the go ahead from state officials, but now the county is considering whether to put a halt to further development. In a crowded special hearing Tuesday night, the Union County Commission heard a complicated message from residents.

The commission is considering the idea in the first place because state lawmakers granted them the authority to restrict development under Senate Bill 52, a measure signed into law last summer singling out solar and wind development for additional scrutiny. The bill’s sponsors, Sens. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, and Bill McColley, R-Napoleon, gave county commissions the right to declare unincorporated parts of their county off-limits for solar or wind farms. In addition to Union, other counties like Allen, Highland and Delaware have begun work on their own restrictions.

The case against restrictions

Protecting private property rights is among the values conservatives hold most dear, and lawmakers certainly leveraged that rhetoric in the measure’s passage.

“When it comes to building structures as tall as the Huntington building (591 ft tall) next to my constituents’ properties, shouldn’t they get some kind of say?” Reineke asked in his sponsor testimony.

Renewable energy’s understood political alignment leans to the left, while mostly rural Union County trends red. So a pitch like Reineke’s might seem like it would get plenty of traction. But the decision to restrict development cuts across, rather than along, those simple political lines. The same rhetoric was taken up just as readily by those pushing back on proposed restrictions.

“This is America. We don’t share land,” a resident named Ashley Berry told the commissioners. “My land is my land, not your land. For someone to tell me what to do with my land? That’s communism.”

David Allen compared property rights to a bundle of sticks that lose their strength as successive branches are removed. Carolyn Steyer Gibeaut explained that her family is part of the upcoming Cadence solar farm, and she defended the leasing arrangement as a way to hold onto the land.

“They reduce the need for borrowing funds for operating and they provide incentives to keep the land together, rather than chipping it away into smaller and smaller housing plots of unproductive land,” Gibeaut said. “For my family, it’s going to give us an opportunity to keep our land in our family for many generations to come.”

Others raised concerns about the signal restrictions would send to businesses considering expansion in the area. Dorsey Hager, who serves as Executive Secretary Treasurer of the Columbus Building Trades Council, argued growth in the energy sector sets the stage for other economic development projects, and he was the first to invoke the recently announced deal with Intel.

“Intel was clear that they wanted to have 100% renewable energy power to power this facility, and there are a number of utility scale solar projects being permitted currently in the Licking County region,” he said.

The case for restrictions

In Union County, opposition has taken root in Facebook groups like Citizens Against Union County Solar Farm, a 600-plus member swap meet for solar anxieties. Posters share the mundane information you’d expect in any grassroots movement, like where and when to file public comments, or which politicians seem to be on their side. They also share stories meant to gin up fears about the companies building solar farms as well as dubious claims about the supposed environmental harms of solar panels.

But their most abiding concern is a sense of encroachment — that the needs of urban communities or tech firms or environmentalists are somehow seeping in and threatening their bucolic way of life.

That was certainly on display Tuesday evening.

One woman whose voice was muffled during introductions asked commissioners what they would do if chemicals from solar panels polluted their wells? She expressed skepticism that the developers and contractors building the facilities can be trusted too abide by laws meant to protect residents.

“Because it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t,” she said. “We always have a cheater somewhere, and they don’t live in our area, so they don’t care if they’re cheating.”

Stephanie Ross told commissioners that she and her husband were some of the first in their community to get college degrees and come back to start a family on a five-acre plot.

“Had I known that a solar farm was going to be surrounding my home, I wouldn’t have bought this,” she said. “I would not raise my children around that; why would I do that?”

What’s next

The commission doesn’t appear to be rushing toward a decision, and they don’t really need to. In fact, it might be better for them not to get involved.

The approaches they’re considering are to preemptively ban large solar and wind installations on all of the county’s unincorporated land or some smaller subset of it. That might be risky, because their resolution will be subject to referendum. With the ballot requirement being just 8% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, petitioners would only need about 1,900 signatures to give voters a chance to weigh in.

On the other hand, the commission can do nothing. If they go that route future installations would still have to present their case in public hearings, and if the proposal raised public pushback, the commission would have 90 days to pass a resolution blocking it or scaling it back.

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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.

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