By a vote of 5-0, more than the required super majority, the Barton County Commission Wednesday morning sent a plan to revamp the county’s zoning regulations and map to prohibit commercial solar farms within six miles of the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area back to the county Planning Commission.
Planning commissioners forwarded the matter to the County Commission during its April 27 meeting. It was the recommendation of Environmental Manager Judy Goreham, who oversees county zoning matters, to return the changes back to the Planning Commission for furthers study.
This is in response to the plans from Acciona Energy USA, a subsidiary of Madrid, Spain-based Accionia Energy, to develop a solar farm in south central Barton County.
“We need to take our time to establish any zoning amendments,” she said. In an unusual situation, the matter came up during the April 27 meeting and forwarded without a public hearing.
The County Commission had two options when acting on the recommendation. First, by a simple majority (three of the five commissioners), it could approve it, which wasn’t recommended due to sticky legal issues. Or, by a super majority (at least four of the five) it could change, reject or send it back to the Planning Commission, which is what happened Wednesday morning.
Hitting the pause button
In a related matter, the County Commission approved a resolution providing for a temporary moratorium on commercial solar energy project development within the unincorporated area of Barton County until the Planning Commission revisits possible changes to the zoning regulations and map. This will remain in place through Dec. 31, unless lifted by the County Commission earlier.
“This just hits the pause button,” said County Counselor Patrick Hoffman, who recommended the moratorium. “We want to get the rules right so everyone feels good about it.”
Barton County last revamped its zoning regulations and zoning map 10 years ago, and these have been revised periodically since, including a conditional use permit process for commercial solar farms, Hoffman said. This pause give everyone a chance to see if these changes are enough or if more are needed.
Goreham said there may be a way to postpone the project without the moratorium by having the Planning Commission hold a public hearing and just continue any action. But, this would be a limited delay tactic, and ultimately, it would have to come before the County Commission, and action would have to be taken.
That is the purpose of the pause, she said. “This gives us some time so nobody gets in a hurry.”
Commissioner Tricia Schlessiger, District 4, questioned the need for the moratorium, ultimately being the sole no vote against it. She felt the matter could be adequately discussed through the Planning Commission.
What happens next?
Now, the Planning Commission will meet and hold a public hearing. It will invite all the involved agencies (Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, the Nature Conservancy, etc.), and all landowners within the proposed map, area as well as landowners within 1,000-feet of the proposed boundary.
And, the area involved would be legally defined.
This would culminate in a Planning Commission public hearing. A recommendation would again be forwarded to the County Commission,,
Acciona is proposing to develop the farm somewhere within a large area that touches Great Bend and Cheyenne Bottoms, and includes Barton Community College. The company has signed option agreements for 1,500 acres that will “be behind the fence.” It has not disclosed the exact location.
However, some are worried these solar panels’ reflectivity and their related infrastructure threaten migrating birds and may have a negative impact on the Bottoms as a protected wildlife area.
Key among these folks is Dan Witt, a retired Hoisington physician and avid outdoorsman and wildlife photographer. He has been at several commission meetings and voiced his concerns.
An emotional Witt spoke to the commission Wednesday. “I represent the cranes,” he said of the endangered whooping cranes who pass through Cheyenne Bottoms.
While Acciona has not submitted any zoning permit applications, he said the company would be in Barton County presenting their case, if it truly cared about the project.
Barton County Commission meeting at a glance
Here is quick look at what Barton County Commission did Wednesday morning:
• By a super majority, sent a plan to revamp the county’s zoning regulations and map to prohibit commercial solar farms within six miles of Cheyenne Bottoms back to the county Planning Commission.
This is in response to the plans from Acciona Energy to develop a solar farm in south central Barton County.
• Approved a resolution providing for a temporary moratorium on commercial solar energy project development within the unincorporated area of Barton County until the Planning Commission revisits possible changes to the zoning regulations and map.
• Heard an overall report on the Barton County Facade Improvement Grant Program led by commission Chairman Shawn Hutchinson, District 3.
• Approved an out-of-state travel request to attend the Council of State Governments Justice Center SCA Substance Use Disorder Symposium June 8 and 9 in Washington, D.C., for Central Kansas Community Corrections.
In 2021, CKCC received a Second Chance Act (SCA) Improving Reentry for Adults with Substance Use Disorders grant which includes traing and that will cover the trip, said CKCC Director Amy Boxberger.
Attending will be Tyler Lehmkuhl, CKCC, and Charity Muth, Stepping Stones to Recovery, a grant partner.
“This is very, very good,” said District 2 Commissioner Barb Esfeld. “We are always learning.”
• Approved an out-of-state travel request to attend the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America’s Mid-Year Forum July 16-20 in Dallas, Texas, for 20th Judicial District Juvenile Services. Juvenile Services received a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Drug-Free Communities Support program grant which includes training and that will cover the cost of the trip, said Juvenile Services Director Marissa Woodmansee.
Attending will be Tyler Morton, Juvenile Services, and Holly Bowyer, The Center for Counseling, a grant partner. Members of the Barton County Youth Crew may also attend.
• Approved the repair of a 2016 Case/IHC Maximum 150 mowing tractor in need of a clutch replacement. KanEquip of Great Bend will do the work for $28,195.04.
This is one of four tractors that pull four mowers to keep the nearly 800 miles of ditches mowed.
• Appointed Jackie DeBusk to the Fire District Number 2 Board of Trustees covering Susank.
According to the resolution creating the district, membership of the board consists of one appointee from each participating township and one from each participating city, County Administrator Matt Patzner said. The position expires Dec. 31, 2024.
The district consists of Albion, Eureka, North Homestead, South Homestead and Union townships, and the cities of Hoisington, Olmitz and Susank.
• Approved a resolution establishing a regular meeting schedule for the commission and rescinding resolution adopted Jan. 4, 2022, and changing the meeting date back to Tuesday.