Talk is heating up on a 3,000-acre solar panel farm along the Douglas-Johnson County line; it would power 40,000 homes

photo by: Courtesy: Johnson County Planning

This map shows the general boundaries of a potential solar farm project for southeast Douglas and southwest Johnson counties. The dotted blue line is the county line, with Douglas County shown on the left and Johnson County shown on the right.

There really might be a 3,000-acre solar panel farm — the largest in the state — developing along the eastern edge of Douglas County in the near future.

While official plans for the project have not yet been filed, you can hear a lot of talk about the potential project — if you are willing to listen to generally boring and technical discussions about zoning code text amendments.

Those are exactly the types of discussions that the planning commissions in both Douglas and Johnson counties have been having over the last several months, and it is clear that those discussions are being driven by the desire of a Florida-based energy company to build a large solar farm that would straddle parts of the border between Douglas and Johnson counties.

Officials with NextEra Energy are actively planning for a project that would be several miles east of Baldwin City and would stretch from about North 700 Road to North 300 Road in Douglas County, according to a document submitted to the Johnson County Planning Commission. That is a distance of about 4 miles. That wouldn’t mean there would be 4 continuous miles of solar panels. There are gaps, where property owners don’t have an interest in participating or the site may not work for solar panels for other reasons.

However, it certainly would be a large solar project. NextEra has a website for the project, which it has dubbed the West Gardner Solar Project, that estimates it would produce 320 megawatts of renewable energy. That’s enough electricity to power about 40,000 homes, according to several energy estimates.

The map shows even more property would be used in Johnson County for the solar farm, which would have its southern edge about a mile north of where U.S. Highway 56 and Kansas Highway 33 — the highway that leads into Wellsville — intersect in far southeast Douglas County. That intersection is about 6 miles east of the rapidly growing industrial hub located in Edgerton and Gardner in Johnson County. The northern portion of the solar farm would stop about a half mile south of Douglas County Route 460, which is the county road that leads into the rural community of Vinland, just north of Baldwin City.

NextEra, a multibillion-dollar energy firm with wind and solar farms across the country, has expressed interest in 2,000 acres in Johnson County for the solar farm. Currently, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is considering zoning regulations that would limit any solar farm to no more than 1,000 acres in Douglas County. But an attorney for NextEra already has begun to argue that the 1,000-acre cap should be lifted.

Alan Anderson, an attorney with Kansas City’s Polsinelli firm, which represents NextEra, told Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioners Monday evening that the 1,000-acre cap would send a bad message about Douglas County’s efforts to fight climate change through renewable energy.

“From a leadership standpoint, if Douglas County is going to place itself in a position of climate change leadership, it can’t have anything resembling this 1,000-acre cap,” Anderson said.

At its meeting on Monday, however, the Planning Commission did not lift the 1,000-acre cap, although some commissioners said they were open to it. Instead it deferred action on the proposed solar farm regulations. It wants a more detailed staff report on several topics related to solar farms. It plans to consider the regulations again at its September meeting.

Let’s back up for a moment and make sure everyone understands where this project is in the process. Right now, planning commissioners — both in Douglas and Johnson counties — simply are debating what zoning rules ought to be established for any solar farm project. Neither planning commission has yet started to debate the actual merits of the NextEra proposal. The company has not yet filed formal plans for its project, in part, because specific zoning regulations for solar farms don’t yet exist in the county.

“It is definitely a new and novel land use in a number of ways,” Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Director Jeff Crick told me. “We are trying to figure out how to make it work best in Douglas County.”

Crick stressed that there were still quite a few steps before the NextEra project would have the necessary approvals to proceed in Douglas County. Once the zoning regulations get approved by the Planning Commission — which won’t happen until late September, at the earliest — Douglas County commissioners would have to approve the zoning regulations. At that point, NextEra could then officially file its plans for the solar farm. That would spark a new set of hearings by both the Planning Commission and the County Commission that would be specifically focused on the NextEra project. Those hearings would give neighbors and others a chance to speak for or against the project.

In addition, Douglas County’s final regulations on solar farms are expected to call for a conditional use permit for any large solar farm project. That means county commissioners would have broader latitude to reject a project or place specific conditions on it if they find the project objectionable.

Some neighbors know of the NextEra idea. Indeed, the energy company has been negotiating preliminary land leases with some property owners. As with oil wells, landowners are paid a lease rate for solar panels to be placed on the property, generally for 20 to 30 years. But some people who live near the project likely don’t have much knowledge of the project.

“You have people inside the boundary that don’t know about it,” Alan Anglyn, a Johnson County resident who lives near the project boundary, told me. “You have people just outside the boundary who don’t know about it.”

Anglyn said he understood that the project still had many steps to go through before it could receive final approval, but he said many of the rules that would govern that approval were being written now and that concerned citizens ought to know more about what was taking place.

“Regardless of whether you are for or against it, I think everybody would agree people should know about it. It is a big tract of land,” he said.

It will be an interesting project to watch. At Monday’s Planning Commission meeting it became clear how the project could pit two environmental goals against each other. On the one hand, Douglas County has expressed a desire to have more renewable energy to help do its part to fight climate change. But on the other hand, the county has placed extreme importance on preserving agricultural land in the county.

The solar panels will make it difficult to conduct traditional agricultural activities on the thousands of acres that they occupy. But planning commissioners also were told that the land could be reclaimed for agricultural uses decades from now, if the solar farm is no longer needed.

Plus, commissioners were told that the solar farm also would act like a land bank. The solar panels would ensure that the land doesn’t turn into new residential neighborhoods. All those views received mixed receptions by planning commissioners.

It sure looks like the Planning Commission isn’t yet of one mind on how to proceed on this, which will make September’s meeting an interesting one. And then, it is unclear how Douglas County commissioners will respond. We reported in May that the County Commission directed the Planning Commission to study solar farm zoning regulations. We also reported that the county was directing that the regulations would be created because some solar farm interest had been expressed. But we didn’t have the details of the NextEra project at that time.

At the moment, it appears NextEra is the company furthest along in pursuing a solar farm project in Douglas County. However, several other energy companies have been actively watching the county’s process to develop the regulations. That’s a sign other companies may be interested in a Douglas County solar farm at some point.

According to its project website, the West Gardner Solar Project would be about a $320 million investment for NextEra and would produce about 250 construction jobs, plus a few permanent jobs to maintain the facility. Late Tuesday afternoon, I did hear back from a spokesman for NextEra, Conlan Kennedy. He said the company was actively working with landowners who want to participate in the project. The company hopes to have the solar farm in operation by the end of 2023, but Kennedy said that timeline was highly dependent on how quickly the zoning regulations worked their way through the approval process. He said good access to large electric transmission lines leading into Kansas City was a key part of NextEra’s decision to pursue a project in the area.

But he also said he thought the project would be a good fit for the two counties. Kennedy contends the solar farms will do a good job of preserving land for future agricultural uses, which seems to be important for both counties. Plus, the solar farms will play a role in helping fight climate change, he said.

“Both counties have shown a real commitment to sustainability,” he said.


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