Public comment will be heard on the proposed Willowbrook solar panel farm on Tuesday evening at Bright Elementary School near Sugar Tree Ridge, and Highland County commissioner Gary Abernathy told The Times-Gazette it will be the first opportunity for area residents to ask questions in a public forum about the proposed 100-megawatt solar power generating facility.
“This is a project that has come on the scene fairly quickly,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t entirely understand what’s going on, and in our case from the commissioners’ standpoint, we have questions, too.”
Abernathy said first and foremost he and fellow commissioners Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton have the responsibility to look out for what is in the best interests of Highland County.
Last week he attended a state county commissioners association meeting in Columbus designed to help orient newly-elected commissioners. He said he had the opportunity to speak with a colleague from Hardin County, where both wind and solar projects are already in place.
“It was a great meeting and conversation,” he said, “but I think the main concern is how this and the larger Hecate project will impact the county as a whole.”
As previously reported in The Times-Gazette, the Hecate Energy Highland LLC solar generating project is a larger 300-megawatt facility proposed for construction north of Mowrystown, with a similar public hearing scheduled for March 19.
Dr. Evan Blumer, project director of the Appalachian Ohio Solar Job Network, said that public input at the Tuesday hearing will be limited to the physical nature of the proposed Willowbrook installation only and how it relates to any adjacent properties and land owners.
“At this hearing, you can ask about how and when it will be built and where exactly it will be built,” Blumer said. “The public can ask about access to the facility, how many workers they expect or what the tax implications will be, but they won’t be able to answer any questions that relate to approval, AEP (American Electric Power) itself or the Public Utilities Commission, or any issues relating to the other developer and their Mowrystown facility.”
Britton and County Auditor Bill Fawley met with Hecate officials last Tuesday, with further discussions taking place during the commissioners’ Wednesday morning executive session, when they met with John Werkman of the Ohio Development Services Agency regarding the Hecate Mowrystown project.
“There is this situation where the solar company wants you to make a deal with them where they want to do what is called ‘payment in lieu of taxes,’” he said. “So we want to see how that method stacks up, does it mean more or less money for the county, and we’re still in the process of getting those answers.”
During Wednesday’s executive session, it was learned that Hecate had applied for a payment in lieu of taxes agreement, which Fawley said required commissioners’ signatures within 30 days, but has a 30-day extension option.
“We came out of executive session and made a motion to request the additional 30 days,” he said, “which basically now gives us 60 days to decide if we want to accept this agreement or not.”
Abernathy defined “payment in lieu of taxes” as a disbursement method where an alternate payment is made to the county based on energy production instead of traditional property taxes.
He said commissioners had been working closely with Fawley to determine how much the properties in question paid in taxes, as opposed to what the company wants to pay the county.
The ramifications of payment in lieu of taxes could have a big impact on Highland County, the Bright Local School District and any other entity that may have a tax levy on the ballot, such as the Highland County Health Department, he said.
Another question on the minds of commissioners is the eventual disposal of the facilities once they have exceeded their operational lifetime.
Blumer said in a recent interview with The Times-Gazette that although the initial power purchase agreement with AEP is for 20 years, the solar panel farms capabilities may extend well beyond that time due to changing and improving technologies.
A final concern, Abernathy said, is the road use agreement where the companies involved agree to help with repair and maintenance of roadways that may be damaged due to additional wear and tear during the initial construction and later operational phase.
“These things are usually the case in projects like this,” he said. “We need to make sure we do our due diligence and make sure that we have our questions answered, and that we have these types of agreements in place.”
Doug Herling of Open Road Renewables recently gave commissioners a progress report on the status of the Willowbrook project, the subject of Tuesday night’s hearing, saying that despite the rapid progress being made in obtaining permits and licensures, he didn’t expect any construction to begin until late next year.
The Ohio Power Siting Board public hearing on Open Road Renewables LLC’s Willowbrook solar farm will take place at the Bright Elementary School on Fair Ridge Road, just east of Sugar Tree Ridge, from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.