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Ohio landowners say solar opposition groups threaten their property rights

Kathiann M. Kowalski, Energy News Network,

A pair of cousins who want to lease land for a contested solar project in central Ohio say a vocal minority is trying to interfere with their property rights.

“I have rights as an owner, farmer and investor that shouldn’t be limited by a small group of individuals who are opposed to any solar development,” said Richard Piar. He and Ethan Robertson jointly own two parcels of property in Knox County, which they want to lease to developer Open Road Renewables for the proposed 120 megawatt Frasier Solar project.

Much of the public debate surrounding the project has pitted local groups that oppose solar energy on agricultural land against the developer and clean energy advocates. But for the cousins, the project is a way to bring in new revenue and help keep the land in the fourth-generation farm family. 

“Solar gives my family opportunities it otherwise would not have for a financial future,” Piar said.

Robertson is now seeking to intervene in the Ohio Power Siting Board case that will decide the project’s fate, and the cousins recently shared with Energy News Network how the project is important to them and their property rights.

“When someone who is not a farmer can tell us farmers what we can do with our land, it creates a slippery slope for property rights,” Piar said.

Concerns about conservation also factored into the cousins’ decision to lease the land, which the solar farm will have to restore at the end of the project. In Robertson’s view, those terms counter opponents’ arguments about blocking the project to protect farmland, especially when much of it – on the outskirts of Mount Vernon in Clinton and Miller townships, about an hour’s drive from Columbus – could otherwise become residential subdivisions.

“My children are 9, 7 and 5 years old. This project is a key way to protect our land from the many ways this county may change over the next four decades,” Robertson said.

And much of the land in the Frasier Solar project will still be used for agricultural purposes while the solar project is in operation. On March 8, Open Road Renewables and New Slate Land Management announced they signed a letter of intent to use sheep grazing to manage vegetation for the project.

Brad Carothers, who runs New Slate, lives in Knox County and raises Katahdin sheep. When a letter came from Open Road Renewables about the Frasier Solar project, he reached out to the company.

“One of the main issues new and emerging farmers face is access to land,” Carothers said. “We’re a first-generation business. And so land is not something that I have from previous generations to utilize. And so this is how we can expand our business.”

Why zoning isn’t the issue

Under Ohio law, a landowner generally gets to control who has access to real property and how it is used, including the right to lease it to others. Zoning can restrict some uses to certain areas, such as industrial or commercial activities. 

For electric generation facilities, however, state law and rulings of the power siting board generally take precedence, except as provided in Senate Bill 52, said Jacob Bryce Elkin, one of Robertson’s lawyers who is with the Renewable Energy Legal Defense Initiative at Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

The 2021 law lets counties ban solar projects from parts of their territory, but only if they were not already in the grid operator’s queue when the law became effective. 

“Frasier Solar clearly fits the bill to be grandfathered” under that exception, wrote Ohio Rep. Bill Seitz in a Feb. 23 letter urging the Ohio Power Siting Board to approve the project. Under the law, one county and one township representative will serve as ad hoc board members on the case.

Elkin also noted that while the Knox County Commissioners decided to ban wind farms in 2022, the same resolution said they would allow large solar facilities. So, because of SB 52, “if the OPSB grants the approval for the project, there’s nothing in local law that prohibits this project from being developed,” he said.

Yet when Knox Smart Development, an anonymously funded group opposing the solar project, hosted a program last month, speakers there talked about zoning and hypothetical situations that don’t apply to the solar farm case.

“For anybody preaching property rights, I always just like to ask them flat out: Does that mean you want to just ban or abolish all zoning?” said Jared Yost, a Mount Vernon resident who incorporated the group. Surely, he suggested at the Feb. 24 event, landowners wouldn’t want a chemical plant going in next door or sewage flowing into their yards.

Kevon Martis, a frequent opponent of renewable energy projects, took a similar tack, suggesting no one would want a 24-hour truck stop or adult bookstore next door – uses already governed by local zoning rules. 

“Everybody says, ‘I should be able to do what I want on my private property,’” Martis said. “And while they may mean that about them, they never mean that about their neighbors.”

A company official with Open Road Renewables was denied entry to the group’s Nov. 30 “town hall meeting” on the project. The group’s events have also denigrated the perspective of farmers and other landowners who will benefit from solar.

“In this project and a lot of projects like this, it’s easy for the supporters of the project to have their voices drowned out by a vocal minority of people opposing the project,” Elkin said.

Even aside from SB 52, zoning doesn’t let governments arbitrarily limit people’s use of their property, Elkin said. Instead, it needs to be rationally related to legitimate land use concerns.

“The onus is really on the opponents to put forward a case that’s grounded in fact, and they haven’t done that,” Elkin said.

What about the neighbors?

Filings by Preserve Knox County and Knox Smart Development in the Ohio Power Siting Board case claim the Frasier Solar project could interfere with adjacent owners’ property rights. And Robert Bryce, a former fellow with the Manhattan Institute, which has been linked to fossil fuel interests, claimed it was “BS” to think solar projects wouldn’t hurt property values in an area.

Among other things, Bryce cited a 2023 study in the journal Energy Policy by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Connecticut. The study team’s analysis of 1.8 million real estate transactions found, on average, a 1.5-percent impact on sale prices for homes within half a mile of a solar project.

However, data for the study ranged from 2003 through 2020, which wouldn’t necessarily reflect the current real estate market. The study also didn’t compare the effects on property values near projects with or without measures to prevent potential negative impacts, although the authors did note that developers or policymakers have various tools to employ, such as landscape measures or compensation for neighbors.

The Ohio Power Siting Board revised its rules for solar farms after the Berkeley Lab study came out. The rule changes require setbacks from property lines, homes and roads. The rules also call for “aesthetically fitting” fencing and other requirements.

Open Road Renewables also stressed steps it takes to accommodate nearby landowners.

“We offer good neighbor agreements at all of our solar projects, and they generally include some sort of compensation,” said Craig Adair, the company’s vice president for development. Payments compensate for periodic disturbances during construction, while also letting neighbors benefit financially from the project, he explained.

Payments also encourage many neighbors to cooperate by sharing drainage tile information. That helps the company protect against problems with drainage or even improve local conditions, said Open Road president Cyrus Tashakori.

Robertson, Piar and other potential lessors are not alone when it comes to valuing property rights in Knox County.

Resident Steve Rex said he attended a Knox Smart Development meeting, which he felt was one-sided and presented inaccurate claims. Property owners shouldn’t have to worry about what other people think about how they use their land, he noted.

Franklin Brown, another Knox County resident, took exception to solar opponents trying to limit the rights of property owners for the Frasier Solar project. “The same conservative people say, ‘Well, we don’t want government up in our faces,’” Brown said. “But oh, here they do?”

The Ohio Power Siting Board is supposed to use statutory factors to decide whether a project moves ahead, rather than the number of supporters or opponents. However, the board has referred to local opposition in some past decisions blocking solar projects. The board will hold a public hearing on the Frasier Solar Project on April 4 at the Knox Memorial Theatre in Mount Vernon. The evidentiary hearing is currently scheduled for April 29.

Kathi Kowalski is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kowalski covers the state of Ohio.

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