More than 150 people were at the Ohio Power Siting Board public hearing Tuesday night at the Whiteoak High School gymnasium, listening to 29 people express their feelings across three hours concerning the proposed 300-megawatt solar power generating farm Hecate Energy Highland, LLC wants to build between Buford and Mowrystown.
The vast majority that were for construction of the 3,400-acre photovoltaic facility cited it’s perceived benefits, such as providing badly needed tax funds to both the Bright Local and Lynchburg-Clay school districts, the prospects of an influx of new jobs to the area, economic growth opportunities for Highland County, and from a farmers standpoint of being able to keep farmland in the family and pass it down to the next generation.
The six people that expressed oppostion to its construction named several perceived detrimental issues such as the potential for increased soil erosion, excessive water run-off that could affect nearby wells, wildlife eradication, possible loss of jobs, health concerns involving cancer and respiratory illness, and a decline in property values that could bring with it the inability to sell property adjacent to the solar farm.
Mark Johnson, business manager of the Tri-State Building and Construction Trades Council, told The Times-Gazette the new economy hasn’t been kind to Appalachia and Highland County.
“I cover 33 counties in three states, all Appalachian counties, and the demise of the coal industry has been detrimental to the economy,” Johnson said. “Right now, Ohio is importing power where before we used to export it, and we’re all about jobs for this area. …I’m for burning coal and natural gas, solar and wind power, nuclear, whatever it is, we want to build it and bring jobs to this region.”
It was the jobs outlook that brought Elizabeth Burcard to the hearing, speaking on behalf of the Hauke and Eyre families, who she described as “two pillar families in the community.”
“I ask that those who are against this project to consider all of the benefits that this could bring to our area,” she said. “This area is in desperate need of jobs and with Highland County’s current unemployment rate at 7.5 percent, solar power employers and solar energy is the future, and we can either embrace this project, or some other county will.”
One of the evening’s most vocal critics was Mark Partin of Sardinia, who spoke on behalf of himself and 275 others who he said had signed a petition to halt the proposed construction effort.
“My children like to play baseball and we’re going to be so close to the project they could pitch a ball right into a solar panel,” he said.
He also asserted that there were improprieties with the petition papers, lack of public information regarding the proposed project in its early phases, and castigated American Electric Power, Hecate representatives and elected officials on both the township and county level.
Another concern raised at Tuesday night’s meeting came from Jeffrey Wilson, president of the non-profit Friends of Serpent Mound, who addressed a suspected impingement of the solar farm on a little known small Native American mound in the shape of a serpent.
“The only confirmation I have on this comes from a history of Clay Township that was published in 1955,” he said. “One of the sections in the book has to do with Native American earthworks, and when I looked at its location it appears to be either on the border of or inside the project boundary.”
Wilson was one of the 22 who testified in favor of the solar project, and added that if the site could be located he hoped it could be set aside so it could become a new tourist draw for the area, or at least be preserved as a state historical site.
In his position at Serpent Mound, he said he was instrumental in mapping 95 other serpent-shaped mounds across North America.
Dr. Evan Blumer, project director of the Appalachian Ohio Solar Job Network, said the next step in the process will play out during an adjudicatory hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. March 26 at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio offices in Columbus.
“Right now the biggest change in this issue is the change of a governor and many legislators,” Blumer said. “That change of leadership also involves the Public Utilities Commission, so it’s hard to say how this will all play out.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.