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Antioch College gets OK on solar array

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Antioch College cleared a major hurdle this week in its plan to build a 1-megawatt solar array on campus.

At its meeting Monday, three regular members of the Planning Commission, plus two alternates who had earlier deliberated on the issue, unanimously approved a five-acre solar photovoltaic array at Antioch as a conditional use. The solar panels will be erected behind a fence on the northeast corner of the land just south of campus commonly known as the golf course.

Because non-residential solar facilities are a conditional rather than permitted use in Antioch’s E-1 educational district, the college needed Planning Commission approval before proceeding.

Antioch Physical Plant Director Reggie Stratton said after the meeting that once Antioch finalizes a contract with developer Solar Power & Light, construction could begin later this summer and the system could be online by late fall. The solar array would provide enough electricity, coupled with two geothermal heating and cooling systems, to make the college one of the first in the nation to produce 100 percent of its own power needs from renewable sources, according to Antioch. 

At the same meeting, the commission also approved the Antioch solar project site plan with a few conditions, including that Antioch erect vegetative landscaping along the fence on the west side to shield panels from the view of homes some 550 feet to the west.

Voting for the project were Planning Commission chair John Struewing and regular members Bill Bebko and Tim Tobey, along with Council alternate Gerry Simms and Planning Commission alternate Chris Till, both of whom joined in voting because they had participated in earlier Planning Commission discussions on the topic while substituting for absent members, Struewing said.

Solar plan a fit for the village

Planning Commission determined that since the solar array will serve Antioch’s educational mission, it is compatible with the character of the general vicinity and that it is also consistent with the intent of the Village’s zoning code and comprehensive land use plan.

“I am satisfied that the proposed solar array does fit in as an educational tool,” Till said at the meeting.

Till acknowledged that while there is “competing language” in the Village’s comprehensive land use plan about the need to support both open space and alternative energy, that since Antioch had a power plant in the past, the “stronger argument is for the solar array fitting in,” he said.

Struewing said that he struggled with his decision to approve the project since the solar array is “not necessarily compatible” with the nearby residential area to the west. However, he said that the panels are too far from the homes to cause problems and that some permitted uses on campus, like large buildings and parking lots, would impact area residences much more.

“What takes me over the edge is these folks can build as a permitted use a huge building with a huge parking lot with lots of light, and then I look at this,” Struewing said.

After the meeting, neighbor Phil King said he disagreed with Planning Commission members’ interpretation that the solar array is an educational tool, saying that by the commission’s line of reasoning, anything that the college erected on campus could be deemed to have educational value.

“The idea that solar panels are educational is a huge stretch,” King said. “Anything the college does can be considered educational — a cess pool, or a garbage dump. It is absurd reasoning.”

A number of villagers spoke in favor of the solar array at the meeting, saying that Antioch’s solar plans will establish the village as an energy model, that other colleges have solar arrays directly on campus and that because Antioch once had a coal-burning power plant on campus, they should be supported for replacing it with less-polluting solar technology.

Debate over noise and nuisance

After some debate, Planning Commission agreed that the noise from a power transformer at the array would not affect residences to the west and also that glare from the panels and stormwater runoff caused by the array would not impact neighbors. Several members said they visited a solar field at Cedarville University that is more than twice the size of Antioch’s proposed array before coming to these conclusions.

Several immediate neighbors of the campus spoke before the commission voted to dispute the idea that the solar array would have minimal impact on neighbors, saying that the solar field would be noisy, cause glare and be an eyesore. 

Mike Kelly, who lives on Kurt Street, said that sound carries differently on the “golf course” and that comparing the Cedarville project, which is located in a more industrial area, is not appropriate.

“To say that the hum [of the transformer] is not going to reach our house is not specific to the site,” Kelly said.

Kelly urged the commission to both conduct detailed studies of the potential noise and glare from the project and to ask Antioch to scale back its project to reduce the impact on neighbors, calling it “a big industrial complex on the golf course.”

During the meeting, King suggested that Planning Commission seek a more thorough study of stormwater drainage issues on the site before approving the conditional use. Commission members, however, said that an independent study conducted by local engineer John Eastman was conclusive in showing that the project would not affect rainwater drainage on the property or create flooding problems for neighbors. In a letter to Planning Commission, Eastman argued that erecting solar panels on the site wouldn’t reduce soil permeability at all, adding that because rainwater flows west to east along the property, homes to the west would not be affected by potential drainage issues anyway.

At a previous meeting, neighbors expressed concern about the presence of sinkholes under the proposed solar array. This week, Stratton reported that Antioch has since filled in several sinkholes with gravel and also slightly altered the location of several rows of panels in its site plan so they are no longer located directly above sinkholes. The new layout did not change the footprint of the 20 rows of panels, added Solar Power & Light CEO Brent Boyd at the meeting.

Next steps for college, neighbors

According to Interim Village Manager Kent Bristol, this week’s conditional use and site plan approval from Planning Commission were the final steps of the Village process and that short of legal action, the solar project is slated to proceed.

King said after the meeting that neighbors have not yet discussed taking further action to halt the installation of solar panels, including the possibility of legal recourse. He added that neighbors will more than likely now focus their efforts on “the farm fight” to keep Antioch from adding more and larger animals to the rest of the golf course property.

Stratton, Antioch’s physical plant director, said after the meeting that the Antioch community is “ecstatic” about Planning Commission’s unanimous decision, that he believes the process was fair and complete and that Antioch worked to satisfy the commission’s concerns.

“I think [Planning Commission] felt like we did our homework and we were able to satisfy and address all the concerns the neighbors had,” Stratton said.

Stratton said Antioch hopes to sign a power purchase agreement with Solar Power & Light later this week and that construction of the solar field could be complete three to four months later. Once an agreement is reached, Solar Power & Light will file the necessary permits with Greene County before breaking ground, Stratton added.

Stratton said that Antioch has no problem complying with the Planning Commission’s request for a vegetative buffer along the eight-foot chain link fence on the west side of the array, which the commission added as a condition of approving the solar project site plan. Antioch had already planned to add vegetative screening to the east of the solar array between a line of mature sycamore trees and also along the perimeter of the “golf course” where it borders residential areas, Stratton said. 

Because Antioch will not expand its livestock operation on south campus in 2014, it is not planning to make any additional requests of Planning Commission this year, Stratton said.

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