Douglas County leaders defer decision on whether energy firm can do tests for large-scale solar project

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The commission meeting room at the Douglas County Courthouse was packed with county residents Wednesday, March 29, 2023, most of whom came to the Douglas County Commission's meeting to offer comments about permit requests for utility-scale solar-related testing activity.

Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday deferred their decision on whether an energy firm may conduct testing for a potential large-scale solar project, and they and some members of the public were skeptical about the company’s claims that it didn’t know it needed a permit.

The commission’s meeting room at the Douglas County Courthouse was packed full of residents on Wednesday night, many of whom came to speak out against industrial-scale solar energy projects in general. But the county leaders were specifically deciding whether to approve four permits for Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources to conduct utility-scale solar-related testing activity on seven properties across four sections of Palmyra Township along the Johnson County line.

Commissioners voted 2-1, with Commissioner Shannon Reid opposed, to defer voting on the permits until early May so staff could look into conducting a third-party assessment of the cultural and archaeological artifacts that may be in the area where testing would occur and investigate some allegations that came up during Wednesday’s meeting — that NextEra may have previously installed devices to test the viability of renewable energy projects before getting the proper permissions in Douglas County.

Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he wanted to determine whether NextEra has a standing history of acting without consulting the county for permission and then just asking for forgiveness after they’re caught.

“I will tell you, to the applicant, I’m not really sympathetic to the delay that this will cause,” Kelly said. “You screwed up here — you did testing in the middle of the night and you didn’t have control of your contractors. It’s created a rift in the community and the community doesn’t trust you. If it were me in your situation, I would’ve been talking to zoning and codes any time I was doing work in the county.”

As the Journal-World reported, NextEra and engineering consulting firm Terracon near the end of 2022 conducted such testing activities without getting permission first. According to a memo from county planner Karl Bauer, a resident in the area complained late last year that NextEra and Terracon were driving metal beams into the ground well into the night for that work, sometimes as late as 10:30 p.m. That activity ceased shortly after the county found out about it, and the applicant submitted the permit applications in late January.

County leaders on Wednesday were interested in finding out why that work had taken place without the county being consulted. NextEra project developer William Wilkins, who submitted the permit application and addressed commissioners at Wednesday’s meeting, told commissioners the firm simply wasn’t aware of the permit process. In fact, Wilkins said this is the first and only time NextEra has ever been asked to apply for a temporary business use permit to conduct survey work like this in any community. Alan Anderson, an attorney with Kansas City’s Polsinelli Law Firm representing NextEra, echoed that claim.

But Commissioner Shannon Reid said more than once that she found it hard to believe that a company of NextEra’s size didn’t think about even asking for a permit, and Kelly wondered how actions like this would affect the public’s trust in the private company’s future activity.

“One of the things that I’m trying to establish is trust here, between NextEra as a company and the community,” Kelly said. “I understand that in the past, you haven’t had to do a temporary business use permit in other places. I believe that is true. However, I think if we were to grant this TBU, it would be in NextEra’s best practices, best efforts to try to create a sense of trust.”

County leaders approved multiple applications from NextEra for the same type of permit just last month, when the firm wanted to install devices that gauge the viability of a future wind energy project on properties in the southwestern portion of the county.

Commissioners weren’t the only ones who were skeptical — many members of the public were, too, and some wondered if this was a sign of how NextEra might continue to conduct business in the county moving forward. Commissioners heard well over an hour of public comments.

Wilkins and a representative with Terracon confirmed that there was work taking place at 10:30 p.m. in one instance last year, and the representative blamed a “breakdown in communication” between the firm and third-party contractors. Wilkins said it wouldn’t happen again.

“Ultimately, we do want to build trust with the community,” Wilkins said after the public comment period closed. “We’ve been conducting extensive outreach and will continue to conduct outreach to try to have conversations, to try to understand what concerns we can potentially mitigate in project design if we are able to design a project that could move forward. Ultimately, we understand that buy-in from the community is important.”

County planning staff noted Wednesday that approving the permits doesn’t guarantee the approval of a future application for a utility-scale solar energy operation.

Wilkins also confirmed that the firm’s work since the county finalized its regulations for solar energy projects in April of last year has largely been survey work to see if its West Gardner Solar project would be viable. As the Journal-World previously reported, NextEra wants that project to span 3,000 acres across the Douglas-Johnson County line.

In other business, the commission:

* Voted to deny a conditional use permit to establish a quarry just southeast of Eudora at 1174 East 2300 Road, near the existing Hamm Quarry.

The vote came after more than two hours of presentations, commission discussion and public comment on the proposal. The joint Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan and Eudora planning commissions had twice voted nearly unanimously to recommend denying the proposal prior to Wednesday’s vote.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.