Concerned citizens for and against American Electric Power’s plan to build solar panel farms in Southern Highland County gave testimony and opinions to officials of the Ohio Power Sitting Board and representatives of Open Road Renewables, the company working to build the 100-megawatt Willowbrook solar farm.
Of the 18 people who agreed to give testimony, only three came out against the proposed solar farm’s construction.
Vikki Raines expressed her distaste in the project, saying she felt landlocked since her property is bordered on three sides by the solar farm.
“I’m going to be the unpopular one and I’m not the only one,” she said. “But what I’m going to get to look at in my back yard isn’t pretty farm land but a bunch of solar panels — I didn’t have a choice as to whether or not I was going to be surrounded by solar fields.”
She said as a property owner for more than 30 years, she felt put upon since even though it isn’t her land that would be housing the solar panels, she originally bought her property due to its rural appeal.
Nancy Bowman said she was in the same situation as Raines, in that her property is bounded on three sides by the proposed solar farm, but her main fear as a former realtor is the negative impact it may have on property values.
“It isn’t a fear, it’s a fact,” the former Jamestown resident said. “And I don’t want to live in what could eventually become nothing but a junkyard.”
Bowman’s husband John echoed his wife’s concerns, saying that they moved to the area two and a half years ago because of the country setting, but had they known about the Willowbrook project, they would’ve never relocated to Southern Highland County.
One of the 15 who were enthusiastically in favor was Connie Schoultheis, whose Seamer Road property is a part of the proposed farm, and described solar power as “a clean, renewable source of power.”
“We’ve got grandkids and this is something that will benefit them,” she said. “No one is making coal or natural gas anymore, and solar is clean and renewable because the sun comes up every day.”
Others that gave testimony in support of the project not only had praise for the clean energy aspect, but also talked about the apparent tax benefits the solar farm could bring to the county and the Bright Local School District, whose tax levy went down to defeat in the recent November election.
Debbie Purvis-Heaton and her husband have a 206-acre farm south of the Old Y Restaurant on U.S. Route 62 and as a supporter of the solar farm, described it as a great source of income for the people involved and a great benefit for the public schools, who she described as “struggling to get money.”
“We simply don’t have the money to pay the additional taxes for a levy,” she said. “I think it’ll benefit the township trustees as far as roads are concerned, it should bring in some decent paying jobs, and it feels good to be a part of progress in this area.”
All three Highland County commissioners were present in addition to County Auditor Bill Fawley. Commissioner Gary Abernathy said it was important to hear comments from those in attendance, both pro and con.
“This is obviously a very big development for the community,” he said. “It’s going to have an effect on people both positively and negatively, and it was good for all three of us to be here and get a perspective on what the community thinks about it.”
Dr. Evan Blumer, project director of the Appalachian Ohio Solar Job Network, reinterated the main goal of Tuesday’s hearing was to gain public input on how the Willowbrook project in particular would affect neighbors, land values, property tax issues and county land usage plans, and that any project above 50-megawatts has to go through the siting board process.
Procedures going on at the state level with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and AEP, and the progress of the Hecate 300-megawatt project in Mowrystown were not on the table for discussion, Blumer said.
According to the OPSB, a public hearing on the larger Hecate solar project is scheduled for Tuesday, March 19 from 6-8 p.m. at Whiteoak High School in Mowrystown.
Blumer emphasized that the protocol will be similar in that the March hearing will concern itself only with the Hecate Energy Highland, LLC, a 300-megawatt solar power facility proposed for construction north of Mowrystown.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571