Douglas County Commission to take another vote on Kansas Sky Energy Center solar project; vote will create formal conditions of approval

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Aerial drone view of solar panels at a solar energy generation farm at Sunset in South Wales, UK

Story updated at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, May 22:

Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday will be asked to take a key vote to formalize their support for a massive solar energy project north of North Lawrence.

Commissioners at their weekly meeting will consider approving “findings of fact” and formal conditions for the Kansas Sky Energy Center project, which proposes to build about 8 million square feet of solar panels on about 600 acres of farmland near the Midland Junction area of northern Douglas County.

The findings of fact and conditions are mainly technical documents that supplement the County Commission’s general approval of the project, which occurred as part of an approximately 10-hour public meeting on April 13, where large numbers of residents came to speak both in opposition and support of the solar project.

However, the technical findings of fact may become important in any future lawsuits against the solar project. As reported, a group of more than 20 residents, businesses and the governing body of Grant Township filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging that commissioners violated their own rules in granting approval of the project.

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges the county did not follow its comprehensive plan, which places particular emphasis on protecting prime agricultural soils. The solar plant will occupy many acres of prime farmland. The lawsuit contends the county needed to first amend its comprehensive plan, if commissioners wanted to allow a solar farm to develop in the area.

The findings of fact up for approval by commissioners contend that the County Commission did follow the comprehensive plan, known as Plan 2040, when granting a conditional use permit for the solar project. The findings contend that the county’s comprehensive plan as written allows for approval of a large, utility scale solar project, even if it is located on valuable agricultural land that the plan also aims to protect.

“Plan 2040 is a flexible document,” the findings of fact read. “Plan 2040 is representative of and includes conflicting values highlighted by this particular application. For example, the goal of preserving farmland and the goal of preserving the planet for the next generations.”

The findings also said commissioners were reluctant to deny a project that had the support of multiple landowners who had agreed to lease their property to the developers of the solar project.

“Although this is zoned agricultural, the proposed solar use still honors the values of the community,” the proposed findings of fact read. “The commission is reluctant to restrict the landowners from leasing land for purposes of renewable energy. Leaving a livable planet is important to the citizens of Douglas County.”

Commissioners also will be asked to formally approve the exact conditions that the project must meet before receiving its final permit. Those conditions — which involve everything from when construction activity can occur during the course of a day to how vegetation on the site will be planted and cared for — number about a dozen pages in length.

The conditions do include general provisions related to stormwater management for the project, which has been cited as a concern by neighbors and is listed as another point of violation in the lawsuit against the county.

However the condition listed in the resolution up for approval on Wednesday is significantly different from what was preliminarily approved at the April 13 public meeting. At that April meeting, the stormwater condition for the project included a provision that stormwater detention basins for the project be designed “to control rates of runoff to predeveloped conditions.” That phrase was meant to ensure that the solar project would not produce any more stormwater runoff onto neighbors’ properties than what the farm fields currently produce.

However, the resolution that is part of the County Commission’s online packet for Wednesday’s meeting omits that phrase, which would open the possibility that the solar project would be allowed to create new amounts of stormwater runoff for surrounding properties.

Shortly before 5 p.m. on Tuesday, the Journal-World reached out to three county officials via email for an explanation about why the phrase had been omitted from the proposed resolution, but as of 8:45 p.m. no county official had responded.

UPDATE: County Administrator Sarah Plinsky responded via email shortly before 10 a.m. Wednesday to say that the omission of the phrase was a clerical error, and that a new resolution will be crafted before Wednesday’s meeting that will contain the key provision related to stormwater runoff.

In other business, commissioners will conduct a study session to review “Adapt Douglas County: A Climate Action and Adaptation Plan” that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take other local steps to battle global climate change. After the work session to review the plan, commissioners will be asked to approve the plan during their regular business meeting.

The work session begins at 4 p.m. on Wednesday at the county’s public works facility, 3755 E. 25th St. in Lawrence. The county’s business meeting will follow at 5:30 p.m. in the same location.


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