County commissioners come up with their final draft of solar project zoning regulations to present to the public

YORK – The York County Commissioners were in session for nearly five hours Tuesday morning, tackling a number of issues – including pushing through to formulate their final draft of solar project zoning regulations which will be presented to the public.

After weeks and weeks of reviewing every line and page brought to them by the county’s planning and zoning committee, they sat down Tuesday with the intent to create a draft for public review, to be further discussed with public testimony during an April hearing, to be followed by an eventual vote.

The most significant outcomes of Tuesday’s conversation were in regard to setbacks for non-participating properties. It was decided, in a split vote, they will present a setback for non-participating properties (such as residences, churches) for Class 3 medium-sized projects to be at 1/16 of a mile instead of the 1/8 of a mile proposed by the zoning commission. A Class 3 medium-sized project would be similar in size to the city’s small solar field at the landfill. Commissioners Randy Obermier, LeRoy Ott and Jack Sikes said they wanted to put forward the 1/16-mile setback for this size of solar project, with Commissioners Stan Boehr and Daniel Grotz saying they wanted to put forward a 1/8-mile setback. So the 1/16-mile setback will be put before the public.

Regarding the non-participating setbacks for Class 4 larger solar projects, Obermier proposed going from the planning commission’s ½-mile setback to 1/8 of a mile. In the end, Obermier and Ott informally voted for the 1/8-mile setback with Grotz, Sikes and Boehr wanting to stay with the ½-mile setback with a 1/8-mile setback from cemeteries. So the 1/2-mile setback will be presented to the public.

Obermier, Ott and Sikes also voted in favor of presenting a 1,000-foot setback for livestock production properties. Grotz and Boehr weren’t in favor of the 1,000-foot setback. With the 3-2 informal vote, the board will present the 1,000-foot setback to the public.

When they started Tuesday’s lengthy conversation, Obermier said he wanted all five of them to talk about any changes they wanted to make “so we can put out a draft to the public. Then we can hold a public hearing during which the public can testify. And then later, we can take a vote on what regulations we want to adopt.”

Grotz told the board how York County Zoning Administrator Nate Heinz had brought up possibly having a third-party zoning attorney or zoning professional review their final draft. “It might not be necessary at this point, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea to have someone review it to make sure everything is worded in the right way.

“I also want to revisit my recommendation to limit the amount of land allowed to be used for renewable energy projects to 1% of the ag land in the county,” Grotz said. “My intent with this is whether it be five or 45 projects, all of those added together cannot exceed 1% of our agricultural land. Is this reading that way? My intent was not to limit individual projects but that the overall aggregated amount would be capped at 1%.”

“It is up to interpretation,” Obermier said, “so we will need to use the correct wording.”

“Is there a way we can put a limit on an individual project so that it is not too large?” Ott asked.

“The answer to that would be yes,” Obermier said, “that could be done.”

Grotz also noted how they added descriptions to the different classifications of projects.

They agreed to allow Class 1 and 2 solar projects (smaller ones) to be allowed with a zoning permit while Class 3 and 4 solar projects would require conditional use permits.

When it came to regulations pertaining to the maturity of trees planted as natural barriers around solar projects, the commissioners agreed young seedlings would not be appropriate and there would be a certain level of maturity required. Heinz will speak with tree experts as to how that could be worded.

The conversation about the Class 4 setbacks was the longest conversation held all morning.

“I think a ½-mile setback is a long way,” Obermier said. “I feel for the acreage owners, but I also feel for the people who own land and signed up for this, too. Those landowners are part of this too.”

“The piece I struggle with is the issue of reasonable expectation,” Grotz said. “People who live in/move to the country expect to see livestock, crops, dust, etc. That expectation might be changing, I don’t know. But I refer to the analogy that if you move into town next to an empty lot, there’s a good chance that someday there will be a house next to you. But let’s say one day there is a plan to put a nuclear plant or a factory next to you, that might throw a red flag. My struggle is, with those people living in the country, how do we take their expectations away? The ½-mile buffer is for the people who expected to live in a farming area.”

“The reality, however, is that if you don’t own everything around you, you can’t control everything around you,” Obermier said. “If you don’t own it all, I have a problem with you controlling it all, that doesn’t seem fair for those landowners.”

When it came to the setbacks for livestock production properties, Obermier referred to information they received about heat coming from solar fields and how after 1,000 feet there is no extra heat whatsoever.

“I bring this up because the big concern about setbacks for livestock properties has been about heat,” Obermier said. “So if we made the setbacks for this 1,000 feet, it should be OK if the main concern is heat.”

The proposed regulations given to the board by the planning commission were that the setbacks from livestock facilities/feedlots would be based on animal numbers, which in some cases could have created one mile to 1 ½-mile setbacks.

“Changing to 1,000 feet would be a pretty big change,” Grotz said.

They had lengthy conversation about the application process (which will be handled later), application fees and bonding for decommissioning in the future.

“And in all my review of this, I saw some regulations in Iowa where they asked companies to include an Agriculture Impact Mitigation Plan,” Grotz said,” as part of their applications. Just thought I’d throw that out there.”

Heinz will be creating a draft, based on their lengthy conversations and the results of their informal votes. Obermier says these will be posted on the county’s website for public review and a public hearing will likely be set for some time in April. Based on testimony and further conversation, the commissioners still have the opportunity to change the proposed regulations before taking a final vote with the majority determining what the final zoning regulations will be.

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