York County Commissioners continue detailed conversation about zoning regulations for solar projects

YORK COUNTY – The York County Commissioners continued their detailed conversation about zoning regulations for solar projects this past week, before a packed house with many people in attendance.

They were presented pages of detailed proposed zoning regulations from the county’s planning and zoning commission. Now they are going through those proposals, making their own proposals and debating changes.

“This will remain on our agenda as we move forward,” said York County Commissioner Chairman Randy Obermier. “As we have discussed, we have found some grammatical errors and word changes we want made. Now I want to go through these again, with each of you, to see if you have more changes you want to see made, since we last talked about this.”

Commissioner Stan Boehr said, “I went clear through it and feel the zoning committee did a really good job. The only thing I don’t know about is one details regarding the screening, because trees die and if they do, that would be tough to regulate. But overall, they did a great job.”

“And again, we aren’t acting on anything today, we are just talking,” Obermier said.

“The people in Hayes Township, they knew they lived in an agricultural area. They knew there would be dust, the smell of manure, they knew the roads would sometimes be muddy. They bought into all of that because they wanted to live in an agricultural area,” Boehr said. “But they didn’t know they would be living in a solar field — the planning and zoning committee knew that and that’s why they created these setbacks for solar projects.”

“In our last discussion, there was some talk if a conditional use permit is the right process for these projects,” said Commissioner Daniel Grotz. “I believe it should say solar projects would be an exceptional use in the agricultural zone. I think it needs to be clearly stated in the comprehensive plan, saying we see there is a new for renewable energy and we are open to thinking about it, but it’s not the intended use of agricultural land.”

“Yes, we did have a conversation as to whether we should create a permit policy or a conditional use permit policy,” Obermier acknowledged. “I asked NACO (the Nebraska Association of County Officials) and they said they will give us some case history on that. And yes, another piece of our puzzle is the comprehensive plan which will soon need to be updated and we could work on that piece.”

“I also think we maybe need to add some verbiage saying solar fields cannot exceed more than 1% of the acres in York County,” Grotz said. “We’ve heard concerns about this, about turning York County into an industrial county and this would be one way to protect that, to keep York County an agricultural county.”

He again reiterated some points of change he brought up during their last meeting – including how the proposed regulations don’t include any specifics about the maturity of the trees used for screening purposes.

“And regarding those trees, years down the road when a solar field is decommissioned and the land is turned back to farming, would it be part of the decommissioning requirements to take out those trees or would the farmer/landowner be part of that decision on whether the trees are removed or if they are to be left?” Grotz said.

He and Obermier reiterated some points they brought up during the last meeting, saying they wanted changes made.

“The one thing we haven’t talked about today are the proposed setbacks,” Obermier said. “For the first two classes, for small solar projects, the setbacks are relatively small and I feel appropriate. But with Classes 3 and 4, where do we feel the setbacks should be?”

Obermier wondered if the proposed setbacks near churches and cemeteries might be “a bit excessive.”

“And with Class 4 projects (large industrial solar fields), the proposed document says ½ mile. That’s how it stands now,” Obermier said.

“We have certainly heard from both sides about this,” Grotz said. “Some feel these setbacks are too restrictive, some feel they are wonderful. One county in Iowa recently passed ½-mile setbacks, so we would not be alone.”

“We aren’t alone, but is it fair?” Obermier asked. “I have a feeling we will have to take a vote on this one.”

“We won’t all agree either,” Commissioner LeRoy Ott said to the people in attendance at the commissioners’ meeting. “We have different opinions and we are good with that. My numbers (for setbacks) have been all over the place as I talk to different people. We have to think about what is best for York County. We can’t think about anything but York County because that’s where we live and why we are here.”

Obermier asked York Conty Zoning Administrator Nate Heinz if he could put the discussed changes into writing, ultimately formulating the next draft. “And then we will bring it back to discuss. And then we act on the draft we want to bring forward so the public has a proposal to look at. Once that happens, we will hold a public hearing process, to hear from the public about what we bring forward. Our next point of action will only be to discus and act on what we want to bring forward as a proposal.”

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