There were no fireworks during the Ohio Power Siting Board’s (OPSB)public hearing held Tuesday night remotely on both YouTube and Webex, but while eight people gave thumbs up to the proposed New Market I & II solar farms, three others were steadfastly against it.
At issue is the Hecate Energy proposal to construct a combined 100-megawatt solar power generating facility on nearly 1,000 acres of land in southeastern Highland County in Whiteoak and Clay townships.
The Chicago-based energy company is moving through the OPSB process in obtaining the necessary licensure to build and operate the photovoltaic facility, in addition to the 300-megawatt Highland solar project slated to be built on 3,500 acres between Buford and just north of Mowrystown.
Centerville resident Dale Davidson, who offered testimony against the project on behalf of the Davidson property trust, said that his family owned adjoining property to the project that had been in the family for four generations, and that he was concerned about seeing farmland disappear, remarking that “farmland is in short supply.”
“The project changes the landscape of the agricultural and rural heritage of the area,” he said. “It basically, for all intents and purposes, changes it into commercial use for our lifetime and generations to come, and probably permanently.”
He said all one would have to do is drive by the Hillcrest Solar Farm, currently under construction on Greenbush East Road near Buford to see how the landscape would be changed, calling it an “eyesore” with a “prison-like fence” that surrounds the property. He said it would change the country landscape and would encroach on wildlife.
Davidson also questioned the number of actual jobs that would be created, in addition to recycling and disposition of the facility when it reached the end of its operational lifetime or became obsolete at some point in the future.
He also took issue with a comment that appeared in the Aug. 26, 2020 edition of The Times-Gazette where Evan Blumer, project director of the Appalachian Ohio Solar Jobs Network, remarked that he considered production of solar power as “just another crop on that land.”
“Any farmer, or anyone that’s closely associated with farming, will tell that is so far from the truth,” Davidson said. “Farming is using the land to grow crops for food, and these solar farms are just a means to collect sunlight and generate electricity, and that can be done anywhere.”
Karla Bolser, whose residence on Gath North Road is sandwiched between Hecate’s proposed New Market and approved Highland solar farm, said she was against it, comparing it to the sprawl that turned farmland near urban areas into subdivisions in the last decade.
“With the proposed New Market I and II, at 1,116 acres along with the Highland Solar Farm at 3,500 acres, this would consume our entire neighborhood,” she said. “We would have New Market solar on one side of us, and Highland solar on the other side, and I don’t feel this is fair to our residents to be surrounded by solar fields and not be able to do anything about it.”
She questioned how companies could come in and “take over such a vast amount of property” and blamed the lack of zoning in the county for enabling, in her words, “companies to prey on the rural counties.”
Bolser also took issue with the job prospects once construction began, citing a report from the city of Cincinnati that said most of the jobs would go to union workers in that city, not Highland County.
“In conjunction with Cincinnati State and the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) Local 212, the city will implement a workforce skill hiring program for a project labor agreement aimed at putting Cincinnati residents to work on the project,” she said, reading from a case study report from Cincinnati’s assistant city manager. “How is that going to benefit Highland County’s poverty level?”
Michael Forrester, director of the office of environment and sustainability for the city of Cincinnati, in his positive testimony for the facility, confirmed that the city would be the primary “off-taker” or customer of the solar farm.
In his testimony of support for the project, Doug Carraher, whose West New Market Road property is within one-half mile of the project, addressed the poverty situation in Highland County, saying that building New Market Solar would help to alleviate it.
“Our county needs the tax revenue this site will bring and we’ve never had an opportunity like this in Highland County, ever,” he said.
Forrester said that current estimates indicated New Market Solar would generate $900,000 annually for the 35-year lifetime of the project, for a grand total of $31 million that he said would benefit local schools and local government.
“There’s a 29-percent child poverty rate in Highland County that was just published by the Census Bureau, and the county ranks 80th in the state as far as poverty and income,” Carraher added.
Six others joined Forrester and Carraher in voicing support for the project, including two members of the Bright Local School District, which stands to receive a substantial increase in tax money if the solar farm is approved and built.
Angie Wright said that since she joined the Bright Local School Board, there had been several attempts at passing a levy, all of which failed.
“The last levy that was passed ended at the end of last year,” she said, “so now we are not collecting any money from our taxpayers except for property tax, and with no commercial activity in our district, it is impossible for our school district to raise the kind of money that this project will produce — especially if our taxpayers are unwilling to pass a levy.”
Bright Local Treasurer Jeff Rowley added his support for the project, and spoke of the financial benefits the district would realize, and why it is needed.
“The difficulty we’re running into is our primary revenue sources, property taxes and state funding, are both driven by three primary factors,” he said, “property values, median incomes and student enrollments, all of which have shown little growth, while on the other hand, cost of services and materials have continued to increase.”
He said the district, in its five-year forecast that was prepared for the Ohio Department of Education, showed it stands to lose $927,000 in combined revenue from the available cash balance.
“This project has the potential to provide an additional gross revenue source of approximately $380,000 annually that we currently do not have,” Rowley said. “In the end, that could be a huge benefit to the Bright Local School District.”
The next event in the discussions relating to New Market Solar I & II will be a series of evidentiary hearings conducted by the OPSB. According to the agency, the hearings will be conducted from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day starting Monday, Jan. 25 through the end of the day Wednesday, Jan. 27.
The public can view or listen in to the hearings by going to http://bit.ly/20-1288-EVH and entering the password OPSB, or by calling 1-408-418-9388, and entering the access code/event number: 173 240 9335.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.