York County Commissioners dive into proposed zoning regulations for solar projects

YORK COUNTY – Much of Tuesday morning, Feb. 20, was spent with the York County Commissioners having a very in-depth conversation about proposed zoning regulations for solar projects.

Dozens of pages of regulations have been sent to the commissioners by the county’s zoning and planning commission for consideration. The planning commission makes recommendations and the county board has the final say.

Over the last two weeks, the county board members had the opportunity to read and re-read all the details being proposed. On Tuesday, they brought forward their suggestions about changes and clarifications.

“As we move through these, let’s look at each page and exact wording you would like to change,” Commissioner Chairman Randy Obermier told the county board members, also noting Commissioner Stan Boehr was unable to attend this week’s meeting, saying he would be reaching out to Boehr for his input as well. “We can discuss all of these. I think if we totally scrap everything, we will have to send it back to the planning commission, but at this point I don’t think that will be necessary.”

He also suggested it may be the right time to ask for the planning/zoning commission to start working on zoning regulations pertaining to wind energy projects, as the county does not currently have those types of regulations in the comprehensive plan/zoning rules either.

Regarding solar projects, Commissioner Daniel Grotz said he wanted to see some sort of indemnification clause to protect the county when it comes to decommissioning a solar field, cleaning up a solar field after a natural disaster (as an example), handling if a company walks away. “York County should not hold any liability.”

There was a conversation about whether a conditional use permit should be required for solar projects, if the private entity creating the project is already meeting all the requirements. Obermier asked if all requirements were being met, if a conditional use permit would be necessary.

“I understand that thought, but I think some sort of conditional use process should exist for each project, to be considered by the county commissioners,” Grotz said. “I think the conditional use permit would be for the entire project as a whole. I think, for each, rather than just say OK, they would have to come to talk to this board first.”

At that point, the commissioners formed a plan for each to speak their mind about the proposals, with Grotz going first.

“I read through our comprehensive plan, and right now with each classification of these solar conversion systems proposed requirements, the only zoning district being recognized is that of the agricultural zones,” Grotz said. “We also need to look at other zoning districts as well, like highway corridors and industrial zones.

“Also, in the comprehensive plan, it calls out agriculture as being the most important component of York County’s economy. It says this in a number of different places and says the comprehensive plan is to protect cropland. So as we review these solar regulations, we need to keep in mind that solar projects are an exception to the current land use, so I feel we need to have it as a conditional use in the agricultural zones. And we need to include other zones as well, as I think that makes sense to include those zones as well.”

“So, if they meet setbacks and all the regulations, you still want them to get a conditional use permit?” asked Commissioner Obermier.

“Yes, I think we need to call it out as a different type of permit because it would be a different kind of land use,” Grotz said.

“Some counties have included six to eight different types of land use zones” in their solar zoning regulations, said Commissioner LeRoy Ott.

Grotz offered numerous grammatical and terminology clarifications/changes throughout the pages of proposed zoning regulations.

He also said when it comes to regulations for vegetative screenings, “it says nothing about the maturity of vegetation/trees at the time of planting. I don’t know if we need to be more specific about the age of the trees when they are planted, because seedlings wouldn’t become screening for 10-15 years.”

Grotz also said he wanted better specifics provided for screenings pertaining to non-participating houses.

“And when it comes to participating properties, no setbacks are included at this time, but should there be?” Grotz asked.

“In the section regarding construction and operations, on page 22, Section B, where it talks about agreements with the county highway department for use of roads, it says the damage would be determined by the applicant and the county board,” Grotz said. “I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to say the damage would be determined by the highway department and the county board. So that correction needs to be made.

“On Page 23, regarding safety, a section talks about fencing but doesn’t say whether the fencing is outside or inside the visual screening,” Grotz continued.

“Section 10 talks about decommissioning,” Grotz said. “Again, as we talked about earlier, regarding indemnification for the county, I want to make sure York County is never held responsible for cleaning up a solar field. We need to make sure it is never York County’s job to clean that up, if let’s say a company picks up and leaves it behind.”

He noted how Page 24, Section B, talks about noise. “It says how one year after it is constructed, we have to make sure it falls within the boundaries of noise, but it has no teeth because the proposed regulations say nothing about consequences or the next steps if there was a violation.

“Another thing I’ve been thinking about is if we want to include a number of total acres in York County that would be allowed for solar production?” Commissioner Grotz asked. “That has been in the back of my mind, as a way to help stay true to our comprehensive plan in preserving prime land for crop production, as it says in the county’s comprehensive plan. I would like for us to discuss that.”

“Regarding your point about vegetation, I think yes, the fencing needs to be inside the screening,” Commissioner Ott said to Grotz.

Then it was time for Commissioner Ott to offer his thoughts.

“Twenty individuals called me, upset because of the setbacks,” Ott said, saying the individuals (who had signed on for their land to be used in the K Junction project near McCool) found the setbacks not only too far but prohibitive. “For the Class 4 projects, if we went with those setbacks, there won’t be any such solar projects in the county, just because of the setbacks alone. I feel for the Jacksons (rural residents in Hayes Township) every single week when they are here worrying about the solar fields where they live, but I would think shorter setbacks would be enough” compared to what is now written. “The distance, as written now, are very prohibitive and basically tell developers to go home. I want to consider cutting them back. I just want it to be considered for the 20 who put their land into the program.”

“We have to remember these zoning regulations aren’t just for the K Junction project, but rather the entire county,” Grotz said.

“I just don’t feel we should say completely no. Having such far setbacks make it so projects can’t happen,” Ott said.

When it came to Commissioner Jack Sikes, he responded to comments made earlier in the day by an OPPD representative who said a survey had been conducted with 80% of York County residents being in favor of solar field projects here.

“I never got a phone call and I’m a York County resident,” Sikes said. “And I’m curious as to why OPPD has to come all the way out here, out of their jurisdiction, to get electricity. Yes, it would bring in revenue but so do crops. I’m just curious as to why Omaha stepped into this so quickly. Most of these people who signed easements were told the McCool School District will get all this money, but if there is no third party involved the district won’t get that money. I won’t say the word fraud but it is close.”

“What would you like to offer about your thoughts on the proposed zoning regulations?” Commissioner Chairman Obermier asked Sikes.

“We will talk about that later,” Sikes said.

“Well, that’s what we are doing right now,” Obermier noted.

“I think the zoning board did what’s right,” Sikes responded.

“A lot of the same things that have been brought up by Commissioner Grotz were on my list,” Obermier said. “And I also want Stan (Boehr) to be part of this conversation too, so I will reach out to him. I agree the 1/2-mile setback is a little bit excessive (on page 15 of the regulations, regarding Class 4 solar fields). I would like to see it be more in the line of the setbacks for Class 3 projects. For participating properties, I agree we need some sort of setbacks.

“When it comes to decommissioning requirements, I feel that on Day 1 we need funds there, bonding, whatever, provided by the developer, to make sure it is covered,” Obermier said. “And I’m totally on board with indemnification for the county, as Daniel (Grotz) recommended.

“As far as Daniel’s thoughts about the total number of acres in the county that can be utilized for solar projects, I at first had the same thought,” Obermier continued. “But this past week, at the meeting for commissioner chairpersons and vice-chairpersons in the state, the attorney general said we can’t zone a company out of business. We need to protect our citizens but we also need to protect York County. Now I’m hesitant to pick up the theory of limiting the number of acres – if it was reached, yes, most companies would go away but some might also come in just with the intent of suing the county. We need to be careful.

“I don’t think we have talked about enough changes to send it back to the planning commission,” Obermier said. “But we will undoubtedly be making some changes.”

“One more thing I’ve heard a lot about from people, and I don’t know if it’s even possible, but when the K Junction project first came up, no one knew anything about it,” Grotz said. “Is there something we can do, if a company is coming in, to look for parcels, do they need to come in for a permit first? I’m not even sure if that was something we would want to do, but I thought I’d just ask.”

“I don’t know about that,” Obermier said. “That would be regulating a private business. I don’t know about that.”

Grotz also noted the proposed zoning regulations “give no time frame on how long a special use permit would be in force. What if someone comes in to get one for a solar project but then 10 years down the road nothing has happened? If they never even started. Should there be a timeframe for the special use permit to be in force?”

“If it was a special use permit, that could be indicated at that point,” Obermier said.

“We will have this back on the agenda for the next meeting and maybe at some point we can have the planning commission members join us for a discussion,” Obermier said.

 

 

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