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Talks start on new solar regs
At issue is proposed solar farm near Cheyenne Bottoms
planning commish solar meeting
Barton County Planning Commission member Mary Anne Stoskopf, center, addresses a commission meeting about possible solar farm regulations Thursday morning at the Barton County Courthouse. Also pictured are commission members Jim Welch, Toni Rice and Billie Jean Bonomo. - photo by DALE HOGG Great Bend Tribune

A day after the Barton County Commission returned proposed zoning changes regarding the prohibition of solar farms within six miles of Cheyenne Bottoms back to the Planning Commission for more study, planning commissioners met Thursday morning to begin what could be a tedious, months-long process to define solar energy installations and the regulations governing them.

Also on Wednesday, the County Commission approved a moratorium on commercial solar facilities in the county until Dec. 31. This pauses all projects, including the one proposed by Chicago-based Acciona Energy USA somewhere in the vicinity of Cheyenne Bottoms.

“They moved to return the zoning map change back to the Planning Commission and directed it to develop the necessary regulations specific to commercial solar farms,” said Environmental Manager Judy Goreham, addressing those gathered in the Courthouse conference room. The moratorium gives some breathing room so they are not rushed.

The proximity to the protected wetland and the Central Flyway, and the possible threat to migrating birds, has ruffled the feathers of area nature enthusiasts and sparked resistance to the Acciona plan. Acciona Energy USA, a subsidiary of Madrid, Spain-based Acciona Energy.

“So what this means is that it is back in your lap,” Goreham said. “They want you to figure out if you’re going to have special regulations like we do for wind energy.”

The county established wind power guidelines 17 years ago that included a no-build zone within six miles of the Bottoms.

Eventhough things are paused, “we don’t want to drag our feet,” said Planning Commissioner Rusty Carson. But, by the same token, “we need to get this right.”

Planning commissioners forwarded the matter to the County Commission for Wednesday consideration at its April 27 meeting.  

What’s next

“I think establishing some regulations is probably the first step,” Goreham said. “And I think that figuring out a map area is probably the last step.”

By the next commission meeting June 8, Goreham said she would prepare the “bones” of a solar policy. “We should be able to knock this out quickly.”

Referring to some of the language in the wind guidelines and stitching together pieces from other counties’ regulations, she will assemble a first draft. 

They are also getting away from using the term “farm,” instead using the term solar energy conversion systems (harking back to the verbiage in the wind regs).

 Planning Commission member Mary Anne Stoskopf has done a lot of research, looking into what other counties have on the books. “I think if we do it, we do it comprehensively,” she said. 

It is surprising how many counties, such as McPherson, Reno and Finney, don’t have any guidelines for solar, she said. 

Like with wind, it is important for them to differentiate private use and commercial use. “We just have to be careful,” Stoskopf said.

The commissioners settled on a three-tier outline – small-scale non-commercial (on home or in a yard), large-scale non-commercial a business putting in a solar farm) and commercial (such as Acciona which is producing power to sell).

And here is the rub, said Commissioner JC Bosch, noting he’d be against anything that infringed on someone’s ability to power their home or farm with solar. “We don’t want to put a halt to them.”

There are already several panels installed around the county, and Goreham signed off on 10 conditional use permits last year. So, regulations need to keep this in mind.

To get a handle on the needs of consumers, the commission will invite local solar systems (P&S Electric and Hammeke Electric) and power companies (Wheatland Electric, Sunflower Electric and Midwest Energy) to offer input at the June 8 meeting. 


And after that?

For the time being, the Planning Commission will continue on a monthly meeting schedule. But, it may start meeting more often to crank out these new rules.

After visiting with the solar experts in June,  the next step will be to invite agencies that have a stake in the Bottoms, such as  the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and the Nature Conservancy. However, these organizations may not be able to publicly comment on the solar project, ham-stringed by their funding sources, Bosch said.

Groups like Ducks Unlimited, the Kansas Ornithological Society and Audubon of Kansas have submitted letters and emails in support of the Bottoms. They have urged caution in allowing the project as well.

Among the questions will be how big is too big for a solar farm in regards to threatening the Bottoms, be it private or commercial.

Other issues discussed included the hazardous waste created by such a project, decommissioning-disposing of obsolete panels, reclamation of the land involved, and other environmental concerns.

Goreham also recommended they hold some public informational meetings as the process moves along.

Ultimately, the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing. It will invite the agencies 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.

A recommendation would again be forwarded to the County Commission.