WAHOO – After attaching several conditions and about five hours of discussion, the Saunders County Board of Supervisors approved a conditional use permit for a proposed solar farm near Yutan.
The supervisors voted 6-0 to approve Resolution 24-2021 granting a conditional use permit for Community Energy to build a utility-scale photovoltaic facility called Platteview Solar.
Community Energy, a private renewable energy developer based in Pennsylvania, plans to build a solar farm on about 500 acres in eastern Saunders County, south of Yutan. It would generate a maximum of 81 megawatts of power, which would be fed back into the OPPD substation and sold to the utility. OPPD solicited private companies to build solar energy generation facilities as part of its Power with Purpose strategic initiative.
The plan includes three “pods” of solar panels between county roads L and J and county roads 5 and 7 that would be connected by underground wire to a substation located adjacent to the OPPD substation on County Road J. One of the pods is located adjacent to Hollst Lawn Cemetery, the only local cemetery in the Yutan area.
The solar fields will contain approximately 183,000 solar panels. The area will be surrounded by chain link fence. In certain areas, landscaping will also be used on the borders of the fields, including around the cemetery.
Construction is proposed to begin in spring 2022 and will last nine to 12 months. The facility is expected to start producing solar energy by the end of May 2023.
Before the vote, the supervisors heard nearly five hours of testimony during a public hearing. The speakers include representatives from Community Energy and OPPD, proponents of the solar farm and a vocal group of opponents, mostly from the Yutan area.
Proponent Annette Rogers spoke on behalf of her and her husband Keith who are among the landowners who are leasing their property five miles southeast of Yutan for the solar field. Their property is very close to the OPPD substation, she said.
When they were approached by Community Energy about leasing their property, Annette Rogers said the couple gave it a lot of thought.
“We felt that this was something that would be good for our family in the future,” she said. “We decided then to sign up with Community Energy. We had no idea at the time that this was going to upset so many people.”
Annette and Keith Rogers’ son Kevin Rogers also spoke as a proponent of the solar farm in support of his parents’ decision to lease the land.
“Not everybody knows my folks here – about half of them do – their integrity is off the charts,” Kevin Rogers said. “Family, the kids at the school, the community, that’s why they made the decision they did.”
Kevin Rogers, an assistant basketball coach at Yutan High School, highlighted the estimated new property tax revenue the Yutan School District could receive, which was also something his mother mentioned as a positive.
According to the presentation made by OPPD and Community Energy at the beginning of the meeting, YPS is estimated to gain $214,379 in new property tax revenue each year.
“I’m ecstatic with what they could do with that money – computer labs or artificial turf on the football fields,” Kevin Rogers said.
Saunders County is estimated to receive $46,598. Including the county, YPS and other area entities, $317,358 could be gained in new property tax revenue.
There were concerns from the opponents related to the district being limited on state funding because of this estimated new tax revenue.
Attorney David Levy addressed these concerns as he represented OPPD and Community Energy at the meeting. He said these funds will not affect state aid for the first five years, but that state aid is not always guaranteed whereas the new property revenue will be assured each year.
Teresa Akeson, the spokesperson for the Yutan area residents and property owners who are not in favor of the solar farm, presented a petition with 504 signatures from people who also oppose the project.
Since the project was first announced in late March, Akeson has said that it is a mistake for the county to allow the solar farm to be located near the cemetery and homes. She also has stated that zoning regulations approved by the supervisors regarding solar energy should be more strict.
“Please do not make another mistake this morning,” Akeson told the supervisors before the vote.
Supervisor David Lutton of Ashland asked Akeson what conditions she would want to be placed on the project. Akeson expressed concerns about construction of the project during the weekend, especially Sundays, and said she had concerns about road damage, drainage and fire suppression.
OPPD and Community Energy addressed many of Akeson’s and other opponents’ concerns prior to the county board’s decision.
The conditions attached by the supervisors to the conditional use permit include providing and obtaining approval from the county zoning administer for a road use and maintenance agreement, decommissioning agreement, landscaping agreement, environmental studies including drainage, avian and wetland studies, notifying the county if there is any transfer of ownership and providing local contact information and an annual report to the county.
As the supervisors discussed the conditional use permit, they acknowledged that there were people who were against the project.
“I don’t think there’s any perfect location for any of this,” said Supervisor Scott Sukstorf of rural Fremont. “I mean somebody is always not going to be happy.”
However, Sukstorf also acknowledged that Community Energy and OPPD met the zoning regulations and other criteria necessary for the permit.
“I feel they are meeting everything they needed to meet with what’s being read here. With that in mind, I will vote yes,” he said.
Supervisor Frank Albrecht of Valparaiso encouraged Community Energy to buy local for landscaping and other materials.
“That would be beneficial to the county as well,” he said.
County Board Chairperson Doris Karloff did not attend the meeting and did not vote on the matter. Karloff’s family are among the landowners who are leasing property to Community Energy.