Hallmark files plans for 1,700 solar panels to be installed near its Lawrence plant; company contends city zoning permits solar farms

photo by: Shutterstock

Solar panels are shown in this photo from Shutterstock.

There’s still considerable controversy about whether a large solar farm should be built in rural eastern Douglas County. But now there are plans for a project with 1,700 solar panels to be built inside the city limits of Lawrence.

And it may not require much in the way of approvals.

Hallmark Cards has proposed the large solar project for vacant property just north of its production plant, which is along McDonald Drive near the west Lawrence interchange on the Kansas Turnpike.

The plan was filed by an official in Hallmark’s sustainability division, and indeed the plan is to use electricity generated by the solar panels to power a portion of the Hallmark plant, which produces the majority of the company’s greeting cards for the North American market.

Kristin Edie, vice president of enterprise sustainability for Hallmark Cards, confirmed via email that the power produced at the solar farm would be used at the production plant, but she didn’t provide details about what percentage of the plant’s operations would be fueled by the renewable energy.

She also didn’t provide an estimate on the timeline for the project to begin or be completed.

The development plan comes at the same time that some residents of eastern Douglas County are fighting the idea of a large industrial solar farm that would stretch over many acres along the Douglas County-Johnson County border east of both Eudora and Baldwin City.

While that project hasn’t officially been proposed, it certainly would be much bigger than what Hallmark is proposing. The West Gardner Solar Project, as it is currently dubbed, could be up to 4,000 acres in size. The vacant piece of Hallmark ground is about 33 acres.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A bean field at 101 McDonald Drive, pictured on Sept. 13, 2023, has been proposed to house a solar farm for Hallmark Cards.

However, the Hallmark project is sizable in its own ways. According to the plans filed at Lawrence City Hall, the project is expected to cost $3 million to construct. It will include approximately 1,700 solar panels, a new road serving the site, new chain-link fencing, and about 3 acres of native grass and wildflower plantings. It was unclear from the plans whether the large number of trees around the edge of the site would need to be removed.

As the opposition to the potential eastern Douglas County solar farm shows, neighbors sometimes don’t like the idea of solar farms. How such projects change the character of often agricultural land is a frequent concern.

Indeed, the property Hallmark is proposing for the solar farm is currently agricultural. It currently is a bean field surrounded by a typical hedge row of trees. The property has an address of 101 McDonald Drive. You see it more clearly, though, from North Iowa Street. It is the property east of North Iowa Street just as you are climbing up the hill to traverse the bridge that carries traffic over the Kansas Turnpike. The property is hard to see now because of the trees, but I suspect the solar panels would be a visible feature for motorists exiting off of the Kansas Turnpike, if the landscape around the site is changed.

The site doesn’t border any existing homes. The property abuts the Kansas Turnpike on its north edge, McDonald Drive on its east edge, the Hallmark plant and a city hike-and-bike trail on its south edge, and to the west of the site — across North Iowa Street — there are other commercial and industrial properties.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A blue semi-truck on the Kansas Turnpike can be seen through the trees of a site at 101 McDonald Drive, which is proposed to house a solar farm for Hallmark Cards.

Still, I’ve got a question into Hallmark officials about how they think the project will fit in with the existing development in the area, but I haven’t yet heard back from a spokeswoman on the issue.

The project — unlike any big solar farm in eastern Douglas County — may not require a vote of public officials before it moves forward. At least that is what Hallmark officials contend. The property, which has long been owned by Hallmark, is already zoned for industrial uses.

In its application, Hallmark says a solar farm is a permitted use in Lawrence’s industrial zoning category. That would mean the plans would need only to receive administrative site plan approval from the city’s planning department, which would examine them for technical issues related to roads, lighting, access and other such matters. Unlike a zoning application, the plan wouldn’t need to receive votes by the Planning Commission and the City Commission to advance.

The planning department only recently received the Hallmark proposal, so it is still early in the review process. However, I do see how Hallmark contends a solar farm already is an allowed use in the industrial zoning category. The city’s zoning code does include a list of uses allowed in each zoning category. A solar farm is not included on that list, but a category for major utility projects is included. The code says those major utility projects are allowed in the General Industrial zoning category, among a couple of other lesser industrial zoning categories.

If so, that theoretically would mean there is quite a bit of property in the Lawrence city limits that is already properly zoned for solar farm projects. While this piece of property isn’t particularly close to homes, lots of pieces of industrially zoned property are.

So, that might be an issue to watch as this review process unfolds and as more companies look to increase their sustainability efforts through solar farms.


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