Amendment Does Not Include Cap On Agricultural Land
The Harrodsburg-Mercer County Joint Planning and Zoning Commission voted to forward a proposed text amendment to the county zoning ordinance which defines and allows for solar energy systems and facilities as conditional uses in agricultural and industrial zoning districts. However, the commission removed a section allowing commercial scale solar projects on land zoned as A-1, A-2 or A-3. The text amendment will next go to the Mercer County Fiscal Court.
People with existing solar systems would be grandfathered, officials say.
The commission voted 5-2 to approve the text amendment and to strike three paragraphs dealing with large scale solar facilities on agricultural land after a nearly two-hour long public hearing—the second of two public hearings—in which both advocates and opponents of solar power voiced their opposition to that section.
After ending the public hearing, Commission Chairman Bobby Upchurch asked for a motion. Noting there had been no comment except on any of the amendment except three paragraphs on one page, Upchurch asked for everything else in the amendment to be left as they were and strike everything in level 3—which deals with large scale facilities—except for passages referring to industrial zoned land.
“Then we can wait for the legislature to decide on what to do with the agricultural,” Upchurch said. “That gets something on the books.”
Upchurch said the text amendment would help local first responders by requiring anyone who installs solar power collection equipment to notify local officials.
“There is a lot of good stuff in there,” Upchurch said. “It isn’t a Mercer County problem, it’s a state problem and it can only be solved at the state level.”
Not all the zoning commissioners agreed. Commissioner Jerry Catlett said he preferred to wait before approving anything.
“How does this affect us bringing in jobs?” asked Catlett, saying the issue was very complicated.
Upchurch said there had been no comment on the other six pages of the text amendment.
“I just need a motion,” Upchurch said.
Commissioner Jim McGlone moved to send the ordinance to the fiscal court minus the language and Commissioner Lucas Guinn seconded. Commissioner Bonnie Anglin said she wanted to understand the implications before voting.
Planning and zoning Executive-Director Shawn Moore said by voting yes, the commission would be forward the text amendment to the fiscal court.
“It’s up to them to decide if they want to approve the ordinance or not,” Moore said.
“I think it still needs some work.” Anglin said. She voted no along with Catlett. The motion passed 5-2.
The public hearing was held Thursday, Feb. 24, at Lions Park Community Center. The first to speak was Greg Dutton, an attorney from Louisville who represents Ceres Farms.
“The proposed ordinance unfairly targets Sirius Farms,” Dutton told the commission. He took exception with caps on the amount of land zoned A-1 and A-2 that could be used for solar farming, saying they likely violated state law. Dutton said other businesses would not have to go through similar hoops. He said the amendment dealing with large scale solar farming would violate the equal protection clause under state and federal law and was tantamount to “spot zoning.”
“We think legally, there is an unstable foundation for the passing of these amendments,” Dutton told the commission. He said there are better ways to limit the amount of land that can be used for solar. Dutton said he would be happy to have a conversation with the commission about better alternatives, but declined to discuss it at length.
“I don’t want to make it up as I go while I’m standing up here,” Dutton said.
He also said the amendment as written would set off a race among developers to claim land before the 10 percent cap is reached.
“It’s a race to get there first,” Dutton said. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best project for this county.”
John Cotton of Wilderness Trace Solar in Danville thanked the commission for including a requirement to report to the fire department. Cotton, who lives in Mercer County, said he is working with legislators about making that a state law at the next legislative session. While he said most of the amendment, which had been revised since the last public hearing, looked pretty good, he also took exception to the cap on agricultural land use. Cotton said large scale developers would need more acreage for projects to make commercial sense. He said it would hinder corporations seeking to offset their energy values.
“I don’t want to see us limit things to the point we hamstring the county in developing other things,” Cotton said. He called the acreage limitation “a step too far.”
“It is important to us to utilize as much renewable energy as possible,” said Mark Hewlitt, a Georgetown resident who serves as a senior controls engineer at Corning in Harrodsburg, Hewlitt noted that Corning goes out of state to buy solar credits in order to maintain their commitment to be 100 percent renewable.
“We would like to buy in state solar credits,” Hewlitt said. He said the solar facility at the E.W. Brown Generating Station could not come close to providing the solar credits Corning needs to be 100 percent renewable.
“We would certainly like to buy our credits locally,” said Hewlitt, who said he was not taking a stand on the ordinance.
Hewlitt designed the 56 kilowatt solar array on the Corning office building. “We do it where it makes sense,” he said. Many large corporations—including Corning and Hitachi—have pledged to reduce carbon emissions.
“It’s going to be a bigger issue,” Hewlitt said. “It would be nice having the option to buying local solar credits.”