Douglas County staff to begin developing regulations for solar farms in rural areas

photo by: Elvyn Jones

Westar Energy and Baldwin City partnered to build this solar-panel array, pictured Aug. 30, 2019, in the city's public works yard.

After getting the go-ahead from elected leaders, Douglas County staff will soon start developing regulations for solar farms in rural areas of the county.

As part of its meeting Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission voted unanimously to initiate a text amendment to the zoning and land use regulations for rural Douglas County for the development of standards for “solar energy conversion systems,” or solar farms. Commission Chair Shannon Portillo, noting that Kansas is one of the sunniest states in the U.S., said developing the regulations would support the renewable energy goals in the county’s new comprehensive plan, Plan 2040.

“I think that this is really exciting, and it is another part of our 2040 plan for how we consider moving forward with renewable energy,” Portillo said.

Planner Mary Miller told the commission that staffers were requesting the creation of regulations for solar farms because they were recently contacted regarding plans to develop a solar farm in rural Douglas County. Under current regulations, the solar farm use is classified in the zoning regulations as a utility and is permitted in rural Douglas County with approval of a conditional use permit, but Miller said there were no specific standards, and that staff’s recommendation was to develop regulations before approving any permits.

“It is possible to develop standards while you review a conditional use permit, but something of this complexity, it would be better to have some standards in place,” Miller said.

Miller said smaller, accessory solar energy systems, such as rooftop panels or freestanding systems, do not require approval of a conditional use permit and are regulated under the commercial building code. As the new standards will only apply to solar farms, Miller said those accessory systems would continue to be regulated in the same manner.

The proposed regulations would cover large-scale solar energy systems that are not an accessory to another use on the property, meaning the systems generate electricity for transmission and use elsewhere, according to a staff report. The county’s zoning regulations do not currently contain specific standards for such systems, which can range from a few acres to thousands of acres.

The report states that the regulations would not be tailored to any specific applicant or project and would address various factors related to all solar farms, including location criteria, mitigation of potential nuisances such as glare, and standards for height, setback and landscaping/screening for mitigating visual impact. Other standards include plans for managing storm water or dealing with any environmentally sensitive areas.

Miller noted that Plan 2040, in addition to supporting the development of renewable energy sources, also supports the preservation of agricultural land. She said the standards that would be included in the regulations would help the county balance those two goals.

“It would be our intent that the standards would give us some criteria to help us evaluate those competing values,” Miller said.

The report notes that solar energy is a form of renewable energy and use of solar energy systems should reduce greenhouse gases in the area. With the review of any solar farm application, information would be requested regarding the end user, the benefit to the community and the impact of the solar farm on the amount of fossil fuel-generated energy in the area.

Miller said that as part of the development of the solar farm regulations, staff would be visiting a solar farm in the area and would also review regulations from other states and counties. Once a draft of the proposed text amendment is developed, it will go to the Planning Commission for a public hearing. The Planning Commission’s recommendation will then go to the County Commission for ultimate consideration.

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