From left, Highland County commission clerk Mary Remsing and commissioners David Daniels, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton are pictured during a forum on solar development Thursday night at Southern State Community College. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
From left, Highland County commission clerk Mary Remsing and commissioners David Daniels, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton are pictured during a forum on solar development Thursday night at Southern State Community College. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Twenty-one Highland County residents shared their views on solar development during a forum hosted by county commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and David Daniels Thursday night at the Southern State Community College auditorium.

Farmers, business owners, public officials, neighbors of affected properties and landowners who have entered agreements with solar companies were among those giving comments, asking questions or sharing statistics. Many gave history and background of themselves or their properties or farms. In addition to those speaking, there were concerned citizens from both sides who watched the forum and did not participate.

The event began with Duncan thanking the crowd for attending, as well as thanking the college for allowing them to host the event.

After Duncan briefly explained the format — encouraging the crowd to “respect others” as they delivered testimony in five minutes or less — the commission began inviting citizens to come to a podium set up in front of the stage to express their views.

They alternated between inviting anti- and pro-solar representatives throughout the night, until the last five speakers, all of whom were in favor of the solar projects. Aside from occasionally interjecting to warn speakers of the five-minute time limit, commissioners did not comment.

The following is a summary of the comments in the order in which they were given.

• Rebecca Williams was the first speaker and criticized the commission — whom she said she “voted for” and previously “defended” — as well as the county prosecutor.

As previously reported, Williams wrote to Highland County prosecutor Anneka Collins. That letter, and Collins’ response, can be read at: https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/In-The-News/Article/UPDATED-Commissioners-OK-sheriff-s-vehicle-purchases-hold-bid-opening/2/20/69297.

Williams alleged that the prosecutor “publicly twisted” her words and “turned them against me.” She told commissioners to “make sure that you’re getting the legal advice needed” regarding solar development. (Collins serves as legal counsel for the commission.)

“Hire attorneys that are familiar with the process,” Williams said.

She added that she was told that commissioners had not met with John Werkman of the Ohio Department of Development “for several years.”

“That once again makes me question: how up-to-date is your information on the PILOT programs and the RUMA [road use maintenance agreement] programs?” she asked. “Mr. Werkman specifically said the reason Highland County is being bombarded by all these projects is because as commissioners, you have rolled out the red carpet by approving the PILOT and the road use agreements.”

Williams also asked the commission: “At what point has Highland County done their part?”

“When will you draw the line on the desecration of our county?” she asked “This is not about green energy. It’s about profit of a few at the expense of the many.”

Williams called on any public official with a “conflict of interest” due to the solar developments to “resign.”

“If you have to remove yourself from a vote because of conflict of interest, you are silencing voices,” she said. “It’s no longer a democracy.”

• Leslie Simpson said that her grandfather has farmed for decades and “built a legacy” with his family. However, she said her grandfather realizes the importance of “setting up a future” for each generation, which he is why he entered an agreement with a solar developer.

“When the solar panel project came, I was skeptical,” Simpson said. “This is something that is not new. Places outside of Ohio have been doing this for a long time.”

She cited positive impacts on the ecosystem as well as the local economy as reasons to support the projects.

“There is so much that we can benefit,” Simpson said. “It benefits all of us. It really does. It’s clean energy. It’s so good for the economy, so good for the ecosystem.

“It could provide more jobs. It could provide just so much good.”

She added that there’s “no risk” involved with the projects.

• Misty Carter, who said that she lives in the “center” of one of the proposed solar developments, said she was “fighting” against “the devastating effects of these deals that have been made.”

Her concerns included the “right to enjoy her property in peace without being injured by adjoining property owners.”

Carter also asked commissioners to clarify their involvement, as she said they at one point “took the stance of being powerless over decisions made,” then later said they have “advocated for negatively impacted residents.”

“At what point in the process, and specifically how or in what ways, have you done so?” Carter asked. “How much money — looking for a dollar amount — would I have to throw at Highland County to be represented, have a voice, be considered and have a seat at the table?”

Carter also asked commissioners about the impact of Senate Bill 52 on their decision-making.

“Will you commit to making Highland County a restricted area, or will you restrict or designate any portion of the county for consideration of future projects?” she asked.

Carter also asked commissioners if they would choose to “move or live inside” an area affected by solar development.

• Wayne Mitchell, who said that he owned 200 acres of farmland and was leasing approximately 70 acres for a solar project, said he’d “like for it to go through” for its impact on local schools and his grandchildren.

“Most of the property that I own, the ground is not highly fertile,” Mitchell said. “It’s very durable for solar panels, a lot less for corn and soybeans.

“I hope we can do something to get this project so that we can get the money for the county, for the schools, and I’m putting the money in a Wayne Mitchell Trust Fund that will be used for my great-grandchildren’s education. That’s the reason I’m doing it.”

• Miriam Isaacs gave a list of “concerns,” as she said she was “not against solar, but I am against solar used in agriculture fields.”

Her concerns included wanting to live in the country and not being surrounded by the “dirty, ugly” panels; impacts on property values for neighboring properties; the panels’ impact on the temperature around her home as well as air quality; reducing the amount of land used to grow food; the impact on local wildlife; and the fact that the city of Cincinnati is benefiting from the projects.

“I don’t understand why someone would move to the country and then want to turn their land into solar fields,” Isaacs said. “I’m asking you, please don’t put this around me. I don’t want it.”

• Melba Allen, who also said that her family has entered an agreement with a solar developer, spoke in favor of protecting property rights.

She said that she and her husband saw the deal initially as a “financial opportunity to cut back on farming and pay bills and enjoy life a little while we still could.”

“Now it’s a personal attack on us and the other landowners,” Allen said. “We are here to plead to you to not take our property away from us.”

She pointed out that some of the solar opponents do not live in the project areas and that property owners have “rights to do what we want with our land” regardless of whether neighbors like it.

“Our deed has two names on it, Ronald and Melba Allen — no one else’s,” she said. “We pay the taxes, no one else. We don’t know these people, they don’t know us. For them to sit in judgment of property owners is wrong.”

Regarding various opponents’ concerns over using farmland for the panels, Allen argued that it’s “better for the ground” because of the reduction in chemicals.

“Farming is a gamble year to year,” she said. “It’s not cheap.

“With the solar panels, it allows us to have additional income for those years that might not be profitable. Times are changing, and some people don’t like change. With the world being in such chaos and uncertainty, let’s calm down and embrace the changes that are coming and the benefits the schools, communities and businesses will receive from these projects.”

• Pat Brown spoke about his concern that property values for neighboring land will decrease as a result of the solar development. He said that he questioned a solar developer, who cited studies from other states and later told him they would conduct a study to present to the Ohio Power Siting Board.

Brown questioned what the study will entail and who will be consulted for the research.

“I am asking you the commissioners to please intervene and put a stop to these solar projects until a lot more research has been done on the effects on property values and many other concerns that have been brought up or will be brought up this evening,” he said.

• Melanie Hawk likened the push toward solar development as an “everyday gold rush” with the potential for money from major corporations that are using green energy tax credits.

“Ohio set up the PILOT payments years ago to entice these companies to our wonderful state of Ohio to build these solar farms,” Hawk said. “They knew a lot of these coal-fired plants that were built in the ’60s were going to be decommissioned. They knew that 25 years ago.”

Hawk acknowledged that there are studies to be done, but she listed the various entities that will benefit from the PILOT dollars, including the school districts, the Board of Health, the Board of DD and Paint Valley ADAMH.

She added that in addition to being used commercially and residentially, solar panels are beginning to be utilized by area school districts, including Fayetteville and Western Brown.

“If it was so toxic and so harmful for our children, why would we allow — why would the state allow them — to be placed on school property?” she asked. “Are we going to sit back and not take advantage of the money that these companies are coming in here and willing to spend?

“Are we going to let them pass us by, forget Highland County, leave us in the dark, leave us struggling? Or are we going to take that $1.3 million or $1.8 million every year, just from the Palomino project, and put that into our community?”

From a farming perspective, Hawk said that the “fields are of good value to crops, but it’s also a good value to put down the solar panels.”

“This is not prime farm ground," Hawk said. “This is the best type of soil to put [panels] in.

“My question here tonight for you all is are you going to sit and let these companies go somewhere else and pass us by, or are you going to take the advantage that we have at hand and let the solar energy come in to Highland County?”

• Karen Faust, who was the next speaker, was the lone speaker to have two opportunities to address commissioners. After being asked to wrap her up comments during her initial address, she later spoke again at another citizen’s request.

Faust spoke about her family’s farm and the fact that “within a 10-mile radius of our farm are eight industrial solar facilities in some stage of development, encompassing approximately 15,000 acres.”

“The solar industry has elected to call these facilities ‘solar farms,’” Faust said. “They’re not farms. They’re industrial-sized utilities. This is a calculated move on the part of developers to make these utilities more palatable.”

Faust said the Ohio Farm Bureau “estimates that Ohio has another 10 years of development in solar energy.”

“At what point do we reach the level of saturation?” Faust asked.

Faust said that “ordinary citizens” opposed to the development are depending on their “elected officials” to represent them. She read from commissioners’ letter in response to citizens concerned about the projects.

That letter can be read at: https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/In-The-News/Article/Highland-County-commissioners-respond-to-solar-farm-correspondence/2/20/70197.

Faust called on the commission to rescind a resolution passed in 2011 declaring Highland County as an “Alternative Energy Zone.”

“In 2011, the situation was quite different than it is now,” Faust said. “That situation says to solar developers ‘come on down, Highland County is open for business.’ Perhaps it’s time to slow down that development.”

Faust also asked commissioners to describe PILOT programs “for what it is — a tax break.”

“I really wish you’d just be upfront and call it what it is,” Faust said. “I trusted you when you said it’s not a tax break. It’s a tax break, and I’m disappointed.”

While she acknowledged there are “advantages and disadvantages” to the PILOT program versus assessing regular taxes, Faust said that “initially, there would be more tax dollars without PILOT.” She asked commissioners to follow other counties’ example and not “automatically accept PILOT.”

“If you do decide to offer PILOT, will you make some protections as a part of it, such as requirements for buffers, setbacks, screening, soil erosion and water runoff controls and minimize the use of prime farmland for solar installations?” Faust asked. “Will you assure that no residents will be surrounded by panels? Perhaps there’s some type of payment that these solar companies can make to homeowners to somewhat compensate them.”

Faust also briefly cited concerns on area wildlife and the “changing technology” surrounding the panels before Daniels asked her to wrap up her comments. She concluded with a list of questions, though not before asking if “someone else would give me their five minutes.”

“Will you rescind [the Alternative Energy Zone resolution]?” Faust asked. “As referred to in Senate Bill 52, will you designate the county or portions thereof exclusionary zones? Will you file an application with the OPSB that permits commissioners to reject a project?

“Will you start by saying that the PILOT is indeed a tax abatement? Will you increase your ability to consider declining PILOT for future projects? How will you make sure that all county residents are protected, and please be specific? In order to provide the best blueprint for Highland County, will you appoint a committee of stakeholders or hire a non biased consultant to help the county navigate this process?”

• Annette Houck used statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture to support her argument in favor of solar development in Highland County.

According to Houck, the USDA in 2017 listed 287,973 acres of farmland in Highland County, including 78 percent crop land, 34 percent no-till, 14 percent reduced till, 10 percent cover crop and 10 percent intensive till.

“Farmers have a right to use their land in whatever way they choose for what works best for their farm,” Houck said. “If that includes solar, then that is their choice.”

Houck then discussed the Conservation Reserve Program that has “compensated farmers and other landowners for taking highly erodable and other environmentally sensitive lands out of crop production.”

Houck said that involves a “set-aside period” for 10-15 years.

“In 1998, Highland County had 22,973 acres in this very set-aside program,” she said. “Now, in 2021, it is at its lowest level of only 11,455 acres, meaning that farmers are not re-enrolling their land into conservation practices because they can’t afford to.

“At a time when we need no-till and carbon sequestering more than ever, solar farming gives a much more sustainable and viable financial option to the farmer than the government CRP program, and it serves the same purpose and offers so many more benefits, with a much higher payout to the farmer.”

Houck added that using land for the solar panels is “a form of CRP,” although with a longer time frame.

“We can welcome back the earthworms, the butterflies, the honeybees, birds, snakes and insects that we have run off from the use of our pesticides and toxic chemical sprays,” she said. “And the solar companies will pay us and our county and actually save taxpayer dollars instead of the government-funded CRP.”

Houck said there was approximately 13,000 acres in Highland County estimated for proposed solar facilities, but she took a different approach with that data.

“It stands to reason that if Highland County had almost 23,000 acres set aside in 1998 and our current set-aside is only 11,455, and farmers needed greater income, then the estimated 13,000 for proposed energy use is quite doable,” Houck said. “It would only be approximately four percent of our county farmland acreage, and more of that county acreage was previously in set-aside.

“Solar opposition is just wrong when they say we are using prime farmland. They’re just wrong.”

Houck encouraged commissioners to “support solar for Highland County” and the property owners who “know their land and the best usage for it better than anyone else.”

“Please allow us to do our jobs and move forward as stewards of our land in a conservation effort that simply looks different,” she said.

• David Mayer alleged conflicts of interest with public officials and concern over the taxes and PILOT program.

“Let’s assume there is a net increase, which is the position you’ve taken and the developers have taken,” Mayer said. “Well, there’s risk — what if those increases don’t materialize?”

Mayer said that if public officials sign a lease with a solar developer, they have “skin in the game” and that it is an “ethical issue.”

Mayer also said that he was opposed to “people from outside Highland County telling us how to run our businesses here;” that “there is no net reduction in carbon offsets” with solar panels; that Highland County will not benefit from the energy; and that there is “no guarantee” of additional jobs with the facilities.

“You need to represent the people and not big tech companies,” Mayer said. “You need to take a real hard look at this.”

• Patrick Shanahan said he was “coming from a place of care and a place of love” for the community and asked the commission to “please consider the threat of climate change to our wellbeing” and to local agriculture.

“The biggest threat to agriculture and our agricultural way of life is not a solar field,” Shanahan said. “It is climate change.”

Shanahan discussed the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report that outlined “increased frequency and intensity of droughts, heat waves, wildfires and intense storm events,” including heavy rainfall experienced in the Midwest, as a result of climate change.

“If you remember about two and a half years — I believe it was spring of 2018 — it was an abnormally wet spring,” Shanahan said. “It was a really scary time for farmers in this area because for many of them, their fields were flooded, and they couldn’t get into their fields to plant. A lot of them had their backs against the wall and were having to choose between eating the loss and taking a crop insurance payment or trying to delay planting and assuming all the risks that go along with that.

“We’re already seeing the impacts in our county. We’re already seeing a destabilized agriculture, which is bad news for a county whose number-one industry is farming.”

Shanahan said that the solar facilities can help Highland County be “a part of the solution” in reducing the effects of climate change. However, he added that he was not suggesting the commission “give these companies a blank check” and encouraged commissioners to “closely scrutinize them and hold them accountable” before entering any agreements. Shanahan also said he wanted the solar opponents’ concerns to be addressed.

“But I believe this all or nothing approach that some people are trying to take is totally shortsighted,” he added.

• Richard Pride said that his family moved back to Highland County after living in Cincinnati and seeing the alleged “corruption” in city politics. He alleged that they are now experiencing the same problems in Highland County.

“I don’t know why they can’t put the solar panels on some of the high-rises [in Cincinnati],” he said. “It’s not really saving the environment at all, and it isn’t a better solution. All it’s doing is lining some pockets.”

Pride said he had concerns for his property value declining and the solar panels “poisoning” the environment, including the air, water and wildlife.

“Please stand up for your constituents,” Pride said. “Take a stand with me. Will you be like Cranley, of low character, or will you stand and fight with me for a better future for us all? Will you be someone proud to sign your name for something more than just a quick paycheck?”

• John Moore told commissioners that he previously lived in North Carolina, where he saw “firsthand the effects of solar panels.”

“All this stuff about pollution is a hoax,” he said.

Moore pointed out that with coal-fired plants being decommissioned, the “energy has got to come from somewhere.” Moore said he “definitely doesn’t want to go without electricity” and that solar is a more affordable option for the companies to generate the power lost by the coal plants.

He also addressed the argument that people brought up repeatedly about being opposed to the energy going to Cincinnati for their solar program.

“Your energy comes from Cincinnati anyway,” Moore said. “They’re going to turn it over to the grid, and the people using the grid in this area are going to get it first.”

• Christina Pride said that she has been researching the topic after she “just found out about the solar farms coming to Highland County a few days before my son started kindergarten.”

Pride said that she believed the panels would have “low efficiency” in southern Ohio as well as a “negative impact” on the environment.

Her list of concerns included “the highly hazardous materials used in the production process, the extremely toxic metals and the waste, the unsustainable mining practices, the habitat loss and degradation, dangerous electromagnetic radiation, and not to mention the loss of property values for homeowners.”

Pride added that the solar facilities were due to a “lust for money” and that she felt “helpless” and that her concerns are “falling on deaf ears.”

“I don’t know how you can sleep at night because ever since I found out about these solar farms, I can’t rest,” she said. “I implore you to reconsider what’s about to be done in Highland County. It not only affects us in the here and now, but these decisions being made are shaping the landscape for future generations.”

• Frank Grosvenor disagreed with the opinions that commissioners are “crooks” or “corrupt.” “I don’t believe you’ve signed away our birthright,” he said.

Grosvenor also pointed out that “we do not live in a complete democracy.”

“We live in a representative republic, where we elect the best man to vote for us,” Grosvenor said. “I trust that’s what we’ve done.”

Regarding the solar panels specifically, Grosvenor said that his family “will be surrounded on three sides” by one of the proposed solar developments, but they are not opposed to it.

“I see the solar project as a chance to provide an expanded source of power for our area,” he said.

Grosvenor cited all of the entities benefiting from the PILOT money as a “godsend,” and he also addressed climate change. In addition to record rainfall in Ohio, he said there are “record droughts and forest fires,” derechos and hurricanes across the U.S.

“Our environment is collapsing, whether we’ll admit it or not,” he said. “Solar is clean and simple.”

Grosvenor added that the country is “in $130 trillion in unserviceable debt.”

“That’s money we can’t afford to pay,” he said. “We’re in debt. We need to have clean, serviceable energy.”

• Peggy Hawk was the next witness called, but she began by inviting Faust to return to the podium.

“I’ve asked Karen to continue her speech and use my five minutes, because Karen’s words are my words,” Hawk said.

Faust resumed her address by expressing concerns about decommissioning the solar panels and the impact on, and reclamation of, the land used for the facilities.

“We don’t know whether the land can actually be returned to the same fertility that it was before the facility was built,” she said. “If the property is purchased outright rather than leased, there’s no requirement that the land be reclaimed at all.”

Faust also added more questions regarding the PILOT funding, including whether the money was “continued only as long as the project is operational or guaranteed for the entire 30 years of the project.”

“I’ve just scratched the surface of a very complex industry, but with Senate Bill 52 coming into effect, we need to be looking at the long term for Highland County rather than the short term,” she said. “Have we got to the saturation point? Has Highland County done its share for solar energy in this area?”

• Ryan Markey then began the consecutive streak of comments from solar proponents. He said he didn’t “buy the notion that solar farms are going to affect people’s property values.”

Markey read from several different studies, conducted in various areas, that found “no adverse effects” to property values in areas where solar farms were present.

“There are several things that need to be considered,” Markey said. “Adjacent landowners do not have the concern of a land use change.

“It’s stable for the next 30 years. Solar farms are not permanent, and they are also offsetting future taxes that landowners have pay.”

• Donald Leeth said that he has “worked in the solar industry for 30 years,” including on local projects. He said he’s also worked in nuclear and coal facilities, but he’s “never been irradiated” from solar panels.

“There is no radiation,” Leeth said. “These are glass. They put steel beams in the ground and pull them right back out. It’s not hard.”

He said that the solar panels are “profitable” for corporations as well as for individual employees such as himself.

“There’s nothing ill about these things,” Leeth said. “I’ve worked on them for 30 years. There’s nothing going to hurt you.”

For commissioners, Leeth suggested that they work with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to see if they could “put pheasant and quail breeding pairs” in the fenced-off areas for the facilities “to get that population back.”

• Desirae Maxwell said that commissioners need to review the pros and cons, “step back” and consider “which one outweighs” the other.

She argued in support of solar panels for the potential to benefit property owners who are getting paid for the use of their land as well as for adding jobs and money for the local community.

“I don’t understand not leaning more toward approving these solar panels,” Maxwell said. “Why not help the community?”

She also said that it is an issue regarding individual property rights.

“I will be surrounded by them,” Maxwell said. “Is it going to affect the scenery? Maybe. But the animals will get used to them. The humans will get used to them.

“It’s just like having a neighbor buy a property next to you, put a house in. You see them out running around or whatever. You don’t like it, but you know what? You’re on your property, that’s their property. It’s our properties. Let us do what we want.”

• Mike Lutmer is another local farmer who said he entered an agreement with a solar company after much consideration.

“It took almost a year,” he said. “I did my due diligence. I looked at the pros and cons, the environmental impacts, what it will do for my family not in the immediate time frame, but my family down the road; and also the community.

“I can’t really find any bad thing about it.”

Lutmer added that he is both a farmer and has an agriculture degree, but he determined the solar panels are “just good business for Highland County and everyone involved.”

• The final speaker was Mark Crowe, who said that he is “not affiliated” with any of the solar projects but was “supportive.” His discussion likened the local pushback to other historical “fights to stop innovation and progress.”

“You can’t stop innovation,” Crowe said. “It will go somewhere else if we don’t do it here.”

The solar facilities are an “opportunity to stimulate the economy in rural America,” Crowe said. “This just happens to be the right thing at the right place at the right time. This won’t just benefit the farmers.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime for these schools and communities,” Crowe added. “It is a complete and total game changer.”

Crowe said that it will have “a ripple effect” throughout the county. For example, he said that Bright Local Schools recently purchased a 17-acre tract for a proposed new sports facility.

“The children are benefiting in a huge way because of the solar projects,” Crowe said.

Crowe asked the commission to “not let this opportunity pass us by.”

“Let’s empower these rural communities,” Crowe said. “With every thing that’s going on in our nation right now, what better thing could we do but empower rural communities, rural schools?

“It’s a big deal, a huge deal.”

Crowe concluded by returning to his analogy of historic attempts to stop innovation.

“The blacksmiths ran the auto industry out of Tombstone,” Crowe said. “The auto industry went to Dodge. Dodge boomed, and everybody in Dodge was happy except for the blacksmiths.

“The blacksmiths in Tombstone went out of business because the economy was so bad that they couldn’t afford a blacksmith. The blacksmiths from Tombstone moved to Dodge, opened up a bar and retired happily ever after.”

At the conclusion of the testimony, Daniels asked if anyone else in attendance who did not turn in a witness slip would like to speak. After there were no volunteers, Duncan thanked the crowd for their participation.

“We appreciate everybody coming and going their testimony,” he said. “We’ll do our best to get answers for you folks and get them to you hopefully within the next 10 days.”