There were many empty chairs Monday during the second public hearing for the proposed Palomino Solar Panel Farm project held at the Highland County Fairgrounds in Hillsboro.
A spokesperson for Innergex, the company behind construction efforts for the solar project, attributed the low attendance to Tuesday’s near-90 degree temperatures, which made the mercury hover at near 100 degrees despite the presence of many large fans to keep the air moving inside the Rabbit & Poultry Building on the fairgrounds.
It was estimated that between 75 and 100 people were present for the second public hearing on the project, one of two that Innergex is involved with in and near Highland County, with the company expected to announce soon that the Hillcrest Solar Farm, just across the Highland/Brown County line near Buford, will be online and operational.
While officials from Innergex and the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) gave their presentation about solar power in general, the dynamics of the proposed Palomino complex and the hoops the company was required to jump through in the certification process, it appeared to be an even split between supporters and detractors of the project, with those for the project wearing blue colored T-shirts emblazoned with “Southern Ohio for Solar Farms.”
The idea didn’t set well with Lynchburg home builder Trevor Elam, who has become known for referring to the debate on the issue as “the Wild West of solar.”
“The people who have lived and worked here their whole lives, even though they don’t own thousands of acres, doesn’t mean they should be negatively impacted by this where their property values get hit,” Elam said.
He took issue with what he called a “prison yard” appearance, where he said residents that lived close to a solar facility would be surrounded on all four sides by chain link fence and barb wire, and correctly noted that solar farms over 50-megawatts came under the jurisdiction of the OPSB.
“The whole county could be zoned residential, but with this, the state can override all of our zoning,” he said. “Over in Clinton County, it’s all zoned residential and agricultural, but that doesn’t matter. The state will give its OK to put in this mega industrial park that you couldn’t otherwise build there, but since its generating power, it usurps all of the rules.”
He said that the OPSB had people looking out for wildlife, ground water, soil erosion and the eventual returning of the solar farm back to agriculture, but they are not protecting people.
“These people have worked too hard for too long to have their biggest investment — their home — devalued right before their eyes and no one is doing anything about it,” Elam said.
Andrea Clemons of Hillsboro was one of those wearing a T-shirt in support of solar farms, and Palomino in particular. She said she and her brothers are invested in the project to the tune of about 300 acres.
“I see both sides of the issue, I really do, but my father worked hard for that land and he left it to us,” she said. “He didn’t want it to be sold and hoped it would stay in the family, and I brought up a lot of these reservations we’ve been hearing about to my brothers and we bickered back and forth.”
She agreed that the underlying argument was that it is a property rights issue, despite Monday’s passage in the Ohio Senate of Senate Bill 52 by a nearly two-to-one margin of 21-12.
State Rep. Shane Wilkin (R-Hillsboro) described it as “a very difficult vote.”
“As you know I have openly stated my opposition to SB 52 and HB 118 as they were originally written,” he wrote in an email to The Times-Gazette. “I understand this issue is very emotional, my major concerns being that of personal property rights as well as possible retro-activity. I am additionally concerned about the possible precedence the original bill could set.”
Wilkin said that after much work on the bill that included personal discussions with Gov. Mike DeWine, he supported Substitute Senate Bill 52 in committee and will vote for it on the House floor.
“That said, I still believe that there are improvements needed in the Ohio Power Siting Board Process and I plan to continue to work on those issues,” he said.
SB 52 would allow county commissioners to designate energy development districts in the unincorporated parts of their respective counties, and provide that within 30 days of the board of commissioners designating such a district, voters could submit a petition to the commissioners requesting a special election on the issue on the day of the next primary or general election that occurs at least 120 days after the petition is filed.
The measure, if signed by DeWine, stipulates that the referendum petition must contain the signatures of the number of registered electors in the county that would be equal to, but not less than, 8 percent of the total vote cast for all candidates for governor in that county in the most recent general election where a governor was elected.
The most recent Ohio gubernatorial election was the 2018 general election. According to the Highland County Board of Elections, 13,600 votes were cast for the four candidates for governor, meaning that the number of verified signatures on the petition would have to be 1,088.
“If this becomes law, I should be able to have a say as to whether or not my neighbor can have chickens that wake me up in the morning, or what to do with that noisy neighbor up the road — it comes down to what rights do you have to do with your own land,” Clemons said. “The government can take our land if we don’t pay our taxes, so how can you tell me what I can do with my land if I’m not infringing upon yours?”
Elam advocated “pushing the pause button” and declaring a moratorium on new OPSB approvals for the next six months to allow for further study of the economic impact on individuals not benefiting from the solar projects, and to allow a review of regulations that he claimed date back to the 1970s and were originally designed for a 150-acre power plant on the Ohio River.
“We’re talking about 20 square miles of Highland County farmland that could disappear because of these solar panels,” he said. “We need to hit the pause button and catch our breath as these developers hurry and scurry to get to the front of the line.”
Wilkin said the latest chapter in the solar panel farm debate — Senate Bill 52 — is on it’s way to DeWine for his signature.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.