A standing-room only crowd of concerned citizens from Highland and Clinton counties, along with local and state public officials, met at the Lynchburg Area Joint Fire & Ambulance Tuesday, May 4 to discuss area solar farms. (Photos by David Mayer.)
A standing-room only crowd of concerned citizens from Highland and Clinton counties, along with local and state public officials, met at the Lynchburg Area Joint Fire & Ambulance Tuesday, May 4 to discuss area solar farms. (Photos by David Mayer.)
A standing-room only crowd of concerned citizens from Highland and Clinton counties, along with local and state public officials, met at the Lynchburg Area Joint Fire & Ambulance Tuesday, May 4 to discuss area solar farms.

Much of the specific concerns regarded Dodson Creek, proposed as an “up to 117 megawatt (MW) solar development” in Dodson, Hamer and Union townships, and the proposed 200 MW Palomino Solar Project in Dodson and Union townships, although area solar farms in general were discussed. Other projects in the Highland County region include Hecate Energy’s New Market Solar I (a 65-megawatt project) and New Market Solar II (a 35 MW project); the Willowbrook Solar Farm (which also encompasses part of Brown County), a 150 MW project; and Highland Solar Farm (300 MW).

Public officials in attendance included Highland County commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and David Daniels, engineer Chris Fauber and auditor Bill Fawley; Union Township trustees Nathan Brown, Joseph Fraysier and Russell Herdman; Dodson Township trustees Marvin Resibois, Randy Mitchell and Ty Smith; Clinton County commissioner Mike McCarty; and Clark Township (Clinton County) trustees Neil Rhonemus and David West.

After group organizer and event moderator Dave Gingerich explained the meeting agenda, State Representative Shane Wilkin introduced himself and encouraged questions from the audience.

“I know there is substantial solar company activity here in the area, in the district, as well in Ohio as a whole,” Wilkin said. “There are reasons for that. Some that you’ve heard are factual, and some you’ve heard are probably not very factual. I’m here to listen and take any questions I can answer.”

Gingerich said “it looks like we have 100 people who want to have ask questions” near the beginning of the meeting. People informally shouted out questions or comments throughout the meeting.

The bulk of the meeting was regarding citizens’ concerns over their voices not being heard and their property rights and repeatedly asking public officials to advocate on their behalf. Questions regarding House Bill 118, aimed at Wilkin, were also addressed, along with topics including property valuation.

Gingerich addressed Wilkin regarding property valuation as the first question, which eventually turned into the property rights/HB 118 discussion. “Everybody thinks their property is going to be devaluated,” Gingerich said. He cited “a Texas study” that gave varying statistics depending on the property’s distance from a solar farm. “What they want to know is how they’re going to get compensated for devaluation, and how are we going to figure this out?”

“You can find, regardless of what you’re looking for, any opinion online that will say this about the values or that about the values,” Wilkin said. “Can we all agree on that? You can find any opinion you want online.”

Wilkin said that legal counsel advised him that it was an “ethical issue” for him to get involved with the property value question, as he has a neighboring property.

“I believe a lot of people, at least I’m told, have been in touch with the developers of these proposed solar farms, and they are working on good neighbor agreements,” Wilkin said. “If those satisfy what you believe the damage is or they do not, it’s strictly going to be between you and the solar farm.”

Gingerich said that some have been offered “$1,000 a year” in the agreements, which they “don’t feel is fair compensation.” “What reinforcement do they have?” he asked.

“Strictly going back and negotiating with the developer,” Wilkin said.

During a Dodson Solar public information hearing last week, on three occasions developers addressed concerns from the community about the value of their properties decreasing due to being surrounded by the solar panels. National Grid Renewables developer Sarah Eberly said that they are “not seeing any direct impacts at all to property values” and that they have no “statistics to back this up at this time.”

One individual in attendance pointed out that Wilkin currently “doesn’t have the authority,” without legislation in place, to enforce the concerns being brought before him Tuesday.

“There’s no bill in place,” he said. “That’s why we’re coming to you, as the representative. There needs to be a bill in place. This is like the wild West.

“For all intents and purposes, anyone in here that’s going to be surrounded on one side, two sides, three sides, four sides has no representation.”

Gingerich asked if the citizen was advocating for Wilkin to support House Bill 118.

“Whatever House bill we can get,” he said. “We need something to put a blockade in place at the moment.”

He asked the elected officials in attendance to “have our back,” speaking of the citizens concerned about the projects.

Another citizen asked if Wilkin supported House Bill 118 or Senate Bill 52, a recurring theme throughout the meeting. According to Marty Schladen of the Ohio Capital Journal, if enacted, these bills would “allow small groups of citizens to block solar and wind farms after they’re already permitted.”

“As they are currently written, no,” Wilkin said. “I can tell you this — they are being redrafted right now. I talked to one of the bill sponsors earlier today.

“What that redraft is going to look like, I do not know. My biggest concern with the way they are written is setting the precedent of what’s next?”

Wilkin listed “a township referendum” on plastic bags, natural gas or propane usage as other issues that passing the bills as written could impact.

“As it is written, where does that stop? Wilkin asked. “A sincere question to everybody here is where is the line on personal property rights?”

Several in the audience disagreed, again referencing their property values. “Let me ask you this,” Wilkin said. “Is there anything else a neighbor could do that would affect the value of your property?”

Someone in the crowd conceded that this is true but not at the same level as a solar farm, as it’s “a lot easier to clean up one property.”

Wilkin said changing his mind and supporting the bills is “not off the table,” but he would “have to see the language” of the redraft before making that decision.

“I think that’s a big misconception, that I’ve been construed as either all behind solar, or early on, I was told I was completely opposed to solar,” Wilkin said. “I view that as more between the property owner and the developer. If someone can help me figure out where that perfect line is, I’d love to hear it.”

Someone else pointed out Wilkin’s sponsorship of House Bill 6. Wilkin said that the Willowbrook and Highland projects are “the only ones that get anything out of House Bill 6.”

Gingerich said there “has to be a balance” for the surrounding property owners to ensure they “have equal rights” and are compensated for the impact on their respective properties, again asking Wilkin to represent his electorate.

“What is the assumption that I represent solar people?” Wilkin asked.

Gingerich said it was due to Wilkin’s lack of support for House Bill 118, “the only way that they have a voice.”

“That’s a great point, other than you don’t know what House Bill 118 is going to look like,” WIlkin said.

Gingerich asked Wilkin “what language you need to see” in the redraft in order to support the bill. “What’s your hangup point?” he asked. “We’ll write letters to the cosponsors.”

The crowd agreed, with some applauding and one person saying, “And we’ll vote, too.”

“The majority of the issues in renewable energy comes from wind,” Wilkin said. “They’re opposed to wind. Solar was kind of an afterthought.

“Do I like seeing this much solar in a concentrated area? No. It’s not ideal. Then again, we all live in a world that is — we have private property rights and capitalism. Where do we draw the line? I’m here to listen and try to hear where that is.”

Gingerich again repeated that it impacts property values as well as property owners’ rights. “Make us a bill that says that we have the rights to stop a bill, because they’re infringing and encroaching on homeowners,” he said.

“How far past your property line does your property rights exist?” Wilkin asked.

Wilkin said that the Willowbrook property is within a few miles of his property, but others in the audience pointed out that they had solar farms within “feet” of their homes.

“On the Power Siting Board, it has nothing to do with the state Legislature,” Wilkin said. “I don’t have anything to do, or any control over, the Power Siting Board.

“I know the few projects we’re talking about more than anything are Palomino and Dodson Creek, which I believe are both in the pre-application stage.”

Wilkin said that he can submit a letter on the citizens’ behalf to the Power Siting Board regarding the projects and outline the concerns.

“Would the commissioners consider intervening for us, or not?” Gingerich asked.

Daniels responded that the citizens’ input “actually matters” more to the OPSB, with the information they share in written comments or during the public hearings. Some in the crowd objected.

“Nobody has got a better story than you do,” Daniels told the crowd. “You’re the ones affected by this.

“Your story will matter more than ours. We’ve got residents that aren’t affected, we’ve got residents that are affected. If we intervene on your behalf, we’re working against the people that actually want the solar projects, and there are people in the county [that do].”

Another person in the audience agreed, saying that the OPSB and legislators should be contacted “every day” by those concerned. She said she’s been told, on some occasions, that she’s “the only one” who’s reached out to legislators.

“Be the biggest thorn in their side they’ve heard,” she said. “If I have to print out the letter for you and all you have to do is sign your name, then we will do that, because if we don’t talk loud and we are not heard, it’s not going to change.”

One Clinton County representative in the audience said that she attended a zoning department meeting regarding a solar project, only to find out that it “bypassed our local level” and was being considered by the Ohio Power Siting Board.

“I feel like we’re removing local jurisdiction to review these, approve them, enforce them at a county level,” she said. “Instead, our fate is in the hands of the Power Siting Board.”

She said that developers approached her with an “embarrassing monetary enticement” in return for property to be “imprisoned” with fencing solar panels on all sides.

“What benefits do these projects bring to the community? The jobs are short-term, and the electric generated does not even stay in Ohio,” she said. “Meanwhile, they wreak havoc on our roadways and drainage systems.”

In addition to property value concerns, she said she is worried about the “safety and quality of life” of her family as well as having to listen to construction all day, affecting her child’s sleep schedule. She asked Wilkin to support House Bill 118.

At that point, Gingerich again asked Wilkin to “say the language” he wanted to see in the bill’s redraft.

“First of all, it needs to be front-loaded with restrictions, and not toward the end of the process,” Wilkin said. “I think a lot of these companies need to do a better job communicating with these communities they’re in. I admit that.

“If that communication happens upfront and there’s pushback, if there’s any type of a referendum, it would need to come prior to the investment from the company. Stop them before they get started.”

Someone asked Wilkin “would care why” a utility developer “loses money.”

“I’m trying to look at the precedent of everything else going forward,” Wilkin said.

Someone else said they “have no voice” with the OPSB and indicated they needed a bill to help. Wilkin said that the original draft of HB 118 is opposed by the Ohio Farm Bureau because the OPSB system was put in place to “give us one set of rules for the entire state.”

“If not, if you go to a township referendum, you could have 1,308 sets of rules,” Wilkin said. “I will help everyone advocate to the Ohio Power Siting Board as much as I can, and when 118 comes out, the sub bill, if there’s emails, we can email out what the sub bill looks like. I can tell you right then where I’m at.”

• On a related note, one audience member asked why there isn’t an ordinance regulating the solar farms.

“Anything about 50 megawatts is regulated by the state and has been since 1970,” Brown said. “This county has had zoning on and off over the years, and it has been kicked out, and you guys have voted it out, not the elected officials.”

According to opsb.ohio.gov, the permitting process at the OPSB includes pre-application, during which a public information meeting is held after public notice is given; the certification application submission; a letter of completeness once the application is complete; a filing date and hearing dates are set and public notice given; OPSB begins an investigation and files a staff report; another public hearing is given after public notice; an adjudicatory hearing is held; briefs and reply briefs are filed; the board makes a decision and either issues or denies the certificate.

Brown added that he doesn’t feel qualified to approve or oversee a solar project as an elected official and reminded the crowd that neither Palomino nor Dodson Creek have been approved by the OPSB yet.

Another person asked if the “pushback is too late” for the projects already planned in Highland County. Wilkin pointed out that some are still in the pre-application stage, and citizens’ feedback is taken into consideration by the OPSB.

Someone asked if the Dodson Creek developers were “false” in their statement that township trustees could write a letter intervening in the application process.

Brown said the trustees could write a letter but again reiterated that the citizens needed to contact the board as well. “You guys want us to do all of the work,” he said. “The most impactful part is that we work together as a community.”

Gingerich told the crowd that they could meet with any elected officials and “ask them to intervene.”

Another citizen asked why Highland County commissioners didn’t notify the public about the solar projects if they were aware of plans “six months to a year” before the rest of the community. The commission meetings are reported on weekly, including in The Highland County Press, as noted by commissioners, but some indicated they don’t read the articles. Gingerich asked if there was a better way for commissioners to reach citizens.

“They can talk to us anytime,” Britton said, but again people objected.

Daniels said they need to look at changing aspects of the siting process.

Someone asked if Wilkin “believes in” the OPSB process. “I do,” Wilkin said.

Clinton County commissioners were also asked to advocate on the group’s behalf. They said they had “outside counsel” helping them “work within the scope” of the OPSB process and try to raise public awareness.

“Is there any power in the state of Ohio that can stop what’s happening?” Gingerich asked.

Wilkin said Governor Mike DeWine could potentially have an impact, but the control rests with the Ohio Power Siting Board.

“Both sides can be heard,” Brown said of the OPSB meetings, later saying, “Don’t think this is just a rubber stamp.”

Someone else asked if Wilkin could reach out to the governor, as he said that he did not receive a response to a letter sent to the governor’s office in February. “Absolutely,” Wilkin said.

Someone else asked if Wilkin could make an effort to speak directly with OPSB officials.

“I’ve never tried,” Wilkin said “I’m happy to do it.”

• Concerns about area wildlife impacted by the solar farms were also expressed, with one citizen saying it’s an “unethical” impact on the animals.

“That is one of the things they’re taking into consideration at the Ohio Power Siting Board and Ohio Department of Ag,” Wilkin said.

Last week, National Grid Renewables senior permitting specialist Lindsey Hesch added that “we will have an ecological assessment as part of our permit application to the Ohio Power Siting Board that will have included habitat assessments from on the ground from professional biologists.”

Similarly, Innergex, developers of Palomino Solar, writes on their website (innergex.com) that “careful consideration is given to minimize deforestation and avoid protected wetlands.”

• Also addressed was the fact that solar farms take up what has historically been largely agricultural areas.

“When they take productive farm ground away from you, the price of food is going to go sky-high, and your children is [sic] not going to be able to eat in the future,” one citizen said. “Don’t use productive farm ground that feeds the people.”

Similar concerns have been expressed at public hearings regarding various solar farms in the area. Developers, including from Hecate Energy, Innergex and National Grid Renewables, have said that the land used by the solar panels will “regenerate” after decades of not being subject to chemical spraying.

“At the end of the solar facility’s life, in about 30 or so years, the facility will be decommissioned, and it can return to its preexisting land use,” Hesch said last week during the Dodson Creek hearing. “By then, the soils will have rested during the life of the project, allowing microorganisms and nutrients to return to the soil.”

Innergex also noted that the land is “leased by farmers who will receive a steady revenue that typically exceeds their expected crops profits.”

“This improves chances that farms can remain within families and thus enhances agriculture’s resilience in the county,” according to Innergex. “At the end of the project’s useful life, the land can be returned to farming and the decades of fallow will have made the land even more productive.”

• Another citizen discussed the City of Cincinnati’s agreement with Hecate.

As previously reported, the City of Cincinnati announced Nov. 21, 2019 that “the largest municipal solar array in the country” — a 100-megawatt project — will be constructed in Highland County to serve the city of Cincinnati’s residents and city facilities. According to the city of Cincinnati’s press release at that time, the “100-megawatt solar array will reduce the region’s annual carbon emissions by 158,000 tons.”

The citizen argued that the companies will “continue to pollute” the environment “at the expense of our homes being surrounded by solar power.”

• Someone else asked about tax incentives for Highland and Clinton counties. Fawley said that for Palomino, it is estimated that $1.4 million “that will be divided up” depending on the panels’ placement, to the affected school districts, townships and counties, plus other local agencies. (The Palomino website says $1.8 million.)

The Dodson Creek project is estimated to bring in $1,053,000 annually, according to developers.

Gingerich said this is under the assumption the developers follow through on their side of the deal.

“County officials wouldn’t have any authority to do anything [if the developers don’t],” Fawley said. “That would have to be done through the state.

“The state has the bonds to reclaim the land.”

Someone else asked “why we are approving things on good will” with the developers. “That makes no sense,” she said.

The meeting was livestreamed on Facebook and is accessible through the “Clinton County/Highland County Citizens Concerned about Solar Farms” private group. More information on the Ohio Power Siting Board, as well as all the local projects, can be viewed at opsb.ohio.gov.