The Ohio Power Siting Board is asking for public comment on the proposed Acciona solar farm project planned for northern Union County. A Spain-based company, Acciona has multiple solar farm projects, like the one above, around the world. (Photo submitted)
Tenah McMahan is in favor of the proposed solar farms in northern Union County.
Her farm, at the corner of Route 31 and Richwood Miller Road, is one that has been identified by Acciona Energy. The company has contracted 100 acres of her farm as well as nearly 3,400 more acres in York and Washington townships to construct a 325-megawatt solar farm.
“I hope it goes through,” McMahan said. “I hope everything gets accepted.”
She said the idea of producing green energy on her land, land she can pass on to her son to farm, is appealing to her.
Now, the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) wants to hear what her neighbors have to say about the project.
On June 3, the OPSB will hold a public hearing regarding Acciona Energy’s Union Solar project. OPSB is responsible for issuing or denying a final permit for the facility.
“This is the opportunity for members of the general public to give official testimony, to give their thoughts and feelings on the project and their perspective on what the project might mean to themselves or the community at large,” said Matt Schilling with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
Until then the OPSB is taking informal written public comments about the project.
Schilling said the OPSB “absolutely considers public comment when making a decision.”
He explained that even if OPSB approves a project, the approval often comes with conditions and “very often those conditions can be shaped by the public opinion so it is a very important part of the process.”
Bruce Davis, a York Township trustee, said that while the trustees have no say in the process, they also want the public to have a voice.
He said that from the very beginning, “we have absolutely encouraged people — for and against — to write letters and make sure your feelings and opinions are heard.”
Davis said the trustees have not taken an official stance on the solar projects. He said that personally, he is conflicted.
“I am a strong proponent of owner property rights,” Davis said. “Absolutely, I believe you should be able to do whatever you want with your property as long as it does not adversely affect your neighbor.”
He said the question becomes what does it mean to “adversely affect your neighbor?” He said impacting drainage is easy to understand as adverse. But is changing traffic? Or altering the view?
“That’s kind of wide open. That’s the difficult part,” Davis said.
Also factoring into the equation is the emergence of Senate Bill 52, introduced by Sen. Bill Reineke.
Currently, the Ohio Revised Code exempts major utility facilities from local zoning regulations, meaning township trustees and county commissioners have few options to stop a wind or solar facility once it has been approved by OPSB.
The new legislation would give residents up to 90 days to file a referendum on the project.
Davis said the proposal is too new and the trustees have not evaluated it enough to have an opinion on it.
McMahan said her and her family wrestled with questions of their own. She said they considered things like drainage, vegetation, the future of the land and even how much of the farm neighbors would need to look at.
She understands that farm land is disappearing and has even considered the idea that the state should put a cap on how much farm land can be tied up in utility projects.
The family spoke with the local soil and water conservation district, company officials and an attorney.
“Our attorney was very cautious and told us to anticipate everything,” McMahan said.
She said the company has an account to restore the land to its original condition once the contract expires and because of the topography of the land, drainage isn’t really an issue.
She also realizes that much of the land has “been beaten to death” and this project would allow the land to rest, benefitting it and the surrounding farm land for years to come.
She said that while the family wrestled with decisions and knew there would be some backlash, it was “upsetting” to read and hear the things some neighbors were thinking. She said many of the comments were uninformed or irrelevant.
She added that, “education is going to be number one so everybody is clear and understands what we are getting and what the company provides.”
“It is going to be hard to change some people’s minds,” McMahan acknowledged.
So, what would she want to say to her neighbors?
“Try to see the big picture for all of us,” McMahan said. “Try to understand that things are changing and we as farmers need to change. Realize that climate change is real. We as farmers realize and see this more than anybody. This can help us all in some way.”
Construction of that facility is set to begin in the first quarter of 2022. Acciona officials said it could be scheduled to be in service by the first quarter of 2023.
Schilling said OPSB staff is set to finalize its report on the project by May 18.
Individuals who wish to provide testimony at the public hearing must register by 12 p.m. on June 2, 2021, by completing the online registration form at https://opsb.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/opsb/events/aeug-union-solar-public-hearing or by calling (800) 686-7826.
The public hearing will be held on June 3, 2021, beginning at 6 p.m.
On the day of the hearing, all individuals who have registered to testify should be prepared to speak beginning at 6 p.m. Individuals will have five minutes to comment.
Individuals who wish to attend the hearing by phone, but not offer testimony, may call (408) 418‑9388 at any time during the hearing and enter access code 129 950 8994.
An evidentiary hearing will be held June 7. At that hearing, impacted officials and organizations can offer more formal testimony about the project and its potential impact. There is no specified timeline for how quickly the board must make a ruling on the project, “but it is typically pretty shortly after — within a month or two— depending on the testimony and the issues in the case,” Schilling said.
Schilling said the proposed Cadence Solar Energy Center is a few months behind Acciona and will be going through the same process. The Cadence Solar project is a proposed 275-megawatt solar-powered electric generation facility.
The company already has about 5,100 acres under lease in Union County. The majority of the land is south of Route 47, between Yearsly and Storms roads and north of Route 347. Officials said they expect to begin construction in the first quarter of 2022, expect to be online, operational and generating power by the end of 2023.