Plans to build the first solar farm in McCracken County hit a snag this week after the county board of adjustment denied a conditional use permit to allow the project to proceed.
McCracken County Solar, owned by Community Energy Inc., is seeking to build a 60-megawatt solar energy farm on four contiguous parcels of land in northwestern part of the county.
The project is described as an approximate $60 million investment on 616 acres, with solar panels and supporting structures covering approximately 400 of those acres. McCracken County Solar’s leases with property owners are for 30 years.
At a hearing Wednesday, the board of adjustments voted 3-2 to deny the company’s application for the conditional use permit.
A motion by member Marc Williams to approve the conditional use application died for lack of a second. A subsequent motion by member Ted Smith to deny the application was passed with Smith, Randall Boggess and Steve Woods voting in favor (of denial) and Williams and Diane Shrewsberry, board chairwoman, voting against.
As part of both motions, the board accepted 41 “findings of fact” prepared by its attorney, David Riley, that addressed a wide range of issues related to the project. Among those was McCracken County Solar’s intent to sell all power generated to Big Rivers Electric Corp. in long-term contract.
The vote came at the third BOA meeting on the subject, following six-and-a-half hours of public hearings held at the board’s August and September meetings. No one from the public appeared at either public hearing to speak for or against the project. No one of about a dozen people in the audience Wednesday asked to speak for or against the project.
Last summer, the McCracken County Fiscal Court amended the county’s zoning ordinance and created a section for solar energy systems. Under the ordinance, solar farms can be approved for conditional use in agricultural zones.
“The planning commission and fiscal court are policy-making bodies. They’ve already decided this is something we’re going to allow,” said Greg Cannon, county planning and zoning administrator.
State law provides applications for conditional use are heard by the board of adjustment, Cannon said.
Chris Killenberg, a regional development director for Community Energy, presented the application and attended all three meetings on behalf of McCracken County Solar.
“I’m disappointed, because I think the site is a very good one and we worked hard to select one that would not be detrimental to neighbors,” Killenberg said, following Wednesday’s vote.
“We reached out to neighbors, we got positive responses and no negative responses, so I don’t feel like we’re harming anyone. I do feel like we were going something positive and we are fully compliant with the ordinance, and going beyond that to take extra steps to make the project amenable to the community.”
Killenberg said the denial of the conditional use permit was the first one out of approximately 40 projects he has been involved in.
“I think we’ll explore an appeal of the decision. And, again, I appreciate that this is new (first application) and I do think the board took their time to think this through ... I just disagree with their conclusions.”
An appeal of the decision would be heard in McCracken County Circuit Court, Riley said. McCracken County Solar could also try to come up with a different plan to gain approval, he added.
Smith said he had several concerns about the project, and the board spent a lot of time discussing them and doing their own research. He added he thought the project hasn’t really been on the “public’s radar,” and if it had, there would be more opposition.
In the course of the two public hearings, Killenberg was asked to provide additional information on things like a proposed decommissioning plan, a construction-phase traffic control plan, safety data sheets on solar panels, sample leases and recycling information on solar panels.
“It’s not a personal vendetta for me or anything. I was appointed to the board to represent the citizens of McCracken County,” Smith said.
“Given all the findings of fact, I just don’t think it’s in the best interest of the taxpayers of McCracken County to proceed with the project. And, it may proceed anyway. They asked my opinion and I gave it.”
McCracken County Judge-Executive Craig Clymer said solar farms will be a discussion topic at Monday’s fiscal court meeting.
Regarding the McCracken County Solar project, “I had looked at it and thought it certainly was zoned appropriately and it looked like it would be an appropriate place. I actually kind of hoped if we were going to have solar farms that would be one of the best areas.”
When it comes to zoning, “We certainly want to allow people to exercise their right to do what they want with their property. People have a personal property right to do what they want up till they are infringing on their neighbors’ or others’ property rights,” he said.
“So, that’s where you get in a tricky position.”
Follow David Zoeller on Twitter, @DZoeller_The Sun