Solar panels
Credit: Kelly Lacy / Creative Commons

Anticipating one of the nation’s largest solar projects, two Kansas counties are considering new regulations to limit the size and location of solar farms.

NextEra Energy Resources announced plans last year for its West Gardner Solar Project, a 320-megawatt project on 3,500 acres in Johnson and Douglas counties in eastern Kansas. The area is attractive in part because of its proximity to major transmission lines as well as potential customers in Lawrence and Kansas City. 

The company has not formally notified either county of its intent to build the project, but both are taking steps to “get out in front” of what would be the first large solar project in the area and one of the largest in the country. 

Johnson County presently has no rules regarding solar farms. Douglas County requires special-use permits but has no standards regarding size or setbacks. 

“It’s common practice for standards to exist for any significant land use,” said Tonya Voigt, zoning director for Douglas County. “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 has hired a consultant who drafted tentative regulations that would require solar projects to obtain conditional use permits, which require a public hearing. The consultant also suggested a 20-year cap on the permits, a 2,000-acre maximum on projects and a buffer of at least a mile from city limits. They also recommend that panels be at least 50 feet from the property line and 250 feet from neighboring residences.

Utility-scale solar arrays were “never contemplated” when Johnson County drew up a current comprehensive plan in 2004, said Jay Leipzig, Johnson County’s director of planning and development. Leipzig added that they are a distinct type of development that requires its own standards because it is not quite agricultural and not quite industrial.

“That’s why we wanted to give the planning commission time to draft regulations before we get an application,” Leipzig said.

The Johnson County Planning Commission held two public meetings in September, where it heard predictions from residents that a large solar project would destroy views and undercut property values. Douglas County, home to the University of Kansas, also has held public meetings and heard from people concerned about possible repercussions of the project, as well as those supporting the move to reduce 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 affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association. Although landowners often are happy to receive lease payments for hosting solar arrays, it’s a different story for those living next door or down the road. 

Developers need to reiterate to communities the financial benefits that will accrue to them — tax revenue for schools and other local government services, lease payments that can offset the volatility of farm income, and jobs. Taking land out of agricultural production for two or three decades also can restore health and fertility to the soil, Gallagher said.

He recommends that the industry not just talk, but listen. “Adjust your plans in response to communities. Some kinds of land are better avoided than developed.”

Reaching President Joe Biden’s goal of generating 45% of the country’s electricity from solar panels by 2050 will require installing panels on half of 1% of all land in the lower 48 states, Gallagher said. Getting there will require that solar developers become “smarter and more sensitive about how and where they develop projects.

In a statement filed with the planning commission, NextEra took issue with the proposed limits on size and siting and said the associated costs could make the project financially unworkable. The company also objected to the county treating solar farms differently from other forms of commercial development.

“Solar projects are ‘development’ that is on par with other types of land development currently being pursued in Johnson County,” the utility wrote, “despite the Johnson County’s Planning Commission Staff’s reference to solar development resulting in ‘compromised’ land.”

Both Douglas and Johnson counties still are gathering feedback and drafting ordinance language. In Douglas County, where two more solar companies inquired over the summer about developing a large array, the planning commission will hold a third public hearing on Nov. 3 and may vote then to pass along a recommendation to the county commission.

The Johnson County Planning Commission will continue listening and deliberating for a couple of months. Two commission work sessions are scheduled for October. More public comment will be welcome at a public hearing tentatively scheduled for Nov. 16. Leipzig said he is aiming to get language to the full county commission by the end of the year.

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.