At their last meeting, the Mercer County Fiscal Court heard from developers about a planned $150 million solar farm on US 127. This week, the fiscal court listened to local residents who oppose the development.
At issue is a text amendment to the county zoning ordinance that would allow solar farms as a conditional use on A-2 and A-3 districts and R-1 districts that are currently undeveloped and immediately adjacent to an agricultural zoned district. In July, the Mercer County Joint Planning and Zoning Commission voted to recommend the amendment, which has to be approved by the fiscal court.
At the last fiscal court meeting in July, representatives from Savion Energy LLC said if the fiscal court approves the text amendment, they would assemble an application for the conditional use permit, which would have to be approved by the board of adjustments.
On Tuesday, three people spoke against the text amendment and the solar facility, which would be located on the old Wilkinson Farm.
Sarah Steele said she was representing the vast majority of community members who live around the project and the farming community. Steele said she was concerned the text amendment would open the floodgates for other companies.
“Why would we make it that easy for a company like Savion?” asked Steele, who questioned whether the solar farm would benefit local industry.
Savion claims the project would generate up to $9 million in revenue for the county over 35 years. The revenue would come in the form of payments in lieu of taxes—also known as PILOT—which would be negotiated between the county and the developer. Savion also said they would be willing to put up a bond for decommissioning the facility once it has reached the end of its usefulness.
Steele said Savion admits they plan to sell the project once it’s completed. She said the agreements currently being made with the county might not be transferable when the project is sold. She also asked the magistrates to verify that the payments will go to the county and not to the state.
Steele said the Wilkinson farm is under historical preservation, but she said Savion had no idea about historical importance of the property until she informed them.
She then turned to the impact the solar farm could have on property values. While Steele said project manager Drew Gibbons—who has met in person and online with local property owners—has been amazing, she called Gibbons’ claim that the solar farm would not affect nearby property values “laughable.”
While Steele said solar power is important, she said it needs to be done correctly.
“Do we want to be the guinea pigs?” she asked.
Steele stressed Mercer County’s history and questioned whether projects like the solar farm were consistent with that.
“We are more known for agriculture,” she said. “We are a rural community.”
Steele urged the magistrates to speak with their constituents before voting. She said she guessed the vast majority of the community is not comfortable with the project.
Len Goodpaster called the proposed solar farm a “two-square mile eyesore” that no one else in Kentucky wanted. He said he has visited the Kentucky Utilities solar farm in Burgin, which Goodpaster said is only 36 acres. Savion’s project would be 1,200 acres.
“This is two-square miles,” he said. “There’s a huge difference, guys.”
Goodpaster called the text amendment the biggest decision the fiscal court had made in his lifetime. He said solar farms can cause a heat island effect. One 2016 study published on Nature.com found temperatures over a plant were regularly 3–4 degrees Celsius warmer than wildlands at night, although researchers said that could vary depending on the type of land and mitigation efforts used.
Stephen Bailey called himself a farmer and a conservationist. Bailey called farmland the most precious thing one could ever have.
He talked about the loss of farmland. According to a report issued by the American Farmland Trust, almost 31 million acres of agricultural land were lost to development between 1992 and 2012. Bailey didn’t cite specific statistics.
“I don’t need to know all those things because I’m a farmer,” he said. “I know what’s happening.”
Bailey said the solar farm would be a better fit for Western Mercer County, where the farmland is not as good.
“Farmland is one of a kind and it’s not being made anymore,” he said.
The fiscal court took no action on the text amendment. Judge-Executive Milward Dedman thanked them for speaking. He said it was not a decision anyone was taking lightly.
In other business, the Mercer County Fiscal Court:
• Approved remitting $21,973 to the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office as instructed by the state auditor.
• Approved the sheriff’s 2019 tax settlement statement for July 14.
• Approved purchasing a 1995 Dodge dumptruck for $7,000 from Brandon Terrell for county dead animal removal. Judge Dedman said the animal carcasses would be taken to the Lincoln County landfill for disposal.
• Received a budget update from Treasurer Sandy Sanders. Sanders said total revenue is down nine percent over all compared to the same period of time last year, which she attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. She said for the period from July 1 to Aug. 11 is down 23-percent between payroll and net profit compared to last year while payroll is down 13 percent for the second quarter. In dollars and cents, payroll and net profit is down $90,000 from July 1 to Aug. 11, with a $58,000 loss in payroll alone.
• Sheriff Ernie Kelty also gave a report on US 127 Yard Sale, which happened this weekend. Despite the pandemic, Kelty said there were pretty big crowds Thursday through Sunday. He and Dep. Steve Williams tried to keep the roads open and traffic moving smoothly and said there were no accidents or injuries.
• “I consider that a success and we all lived through it,” Sheriff Kelty said.
The next meeting of the Mercer County Fiscal Court will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 26, at 10 a.m.