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Land & Environmental

An estimated 300 people crowded into the Expo Center at the Greene County Fairgrounds on Monday night, Nov. 15, for a public hearing conducted by the Ohio Power Siting Board to hear testimony from residents about the proposed 1,500-acre Kingwood Solar project that if approved will encompass land in Miami, Xenia and Cedarville townships. (Photo by Carol Simmons)

Neighbors split on 1,500-acre Kingwood Solar field project

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An estimated 300 people crowded into the Expo Center at the Greene County Fairgrounds on Monday evening, Nov. 15, for a public hearing on the proposed 1,500-acre Kingwood Solar field project.

The hearing was conducted by the Ohio Power Siting Board, or OPSB, which will make the final determination whether to greenlight the proposed 175-megawatt solar panel array that encompasses land in Miami, Xenia and Cedarville townships. The hearing was the only opportunity in which local residents will have the chance to speak directly to power siting board members.

Nearly 90 people signed up to give personal testimony during the proceedings, which lasted over five-and-a-half hours. Not all who signed up spoke, however, with nearly 30 opting to submit written opinions and go home as the hours passed.

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Owned by Texas-based Vesper Energy, Kingwood Solar is expected to generate about 360,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year for utility users in Ohio and states to the east. The proposed project would be located between Yellow Springs and Cedarville. Parts of the project are in proximity to 4-H Camp Clifton, Clifton Gorge, Clifton Mill, John Bryan State Park, Glen Helen Nature Preserve and the Little Miami River.

Vesper Energy has since 2017 signed contracts with at least 17 property owners to lease the necessary acreage for 43 years, starting at $1,000 per acre per year, according to past News reporting. Farmland typically rents for between $200 to $250 an acre in the area. According to its application to OPSB, filed this past April, Vesper plans to erect 410,000 solar photovoltaic panels, along with building a substation, utility switchyard and other infrastructure. The application also noted that 159 residences are within 1,500 feet of the project.

Opponents of the plans arrived Monday carrying small signs and wearing stickers and T-shirts expressing their objections. While some of those who testified spoke emotionally about painful ideological divisions in their communities, and several on both sides made searingly critical accusations against their neighbors, the roomful of people remained civil overall, with occasional clapping for favored opinions and relatively few negative vocal responses.

Of those who testified, the majority were against the project, but supporters made their case as well. Concerns included the environmental impact on land, water and wildlife; noise of construction and during operation; the visual appearance; the effects of violent weather, such as tornadoes and hail; and negative interactions with Vesper officials that have prompted distrust.

Supporters stressed the environmental benefits of green energy; the financial benefits to landowners, particularly farmers, seeking to hold on to properties that in some cases have been in families for generations; tax benefits for local governments and schools; and the expectation that landowners be allowed to use their properties as they choose.

Miami Township Zoning Inspector Richard Zopf noted that Miami Township would be absorbing the bulk of the project, with 1,000 acres of the planned 1,500 total inside its borders. He testified that Miami Township currently has 12,000 acres of available agricultural land, and that taking 1,000 acres out of the mix would have a negative consequence on local farming.

Geof Garrison, a Miami Township resident and a member of the township’s board of zoning appeals, also testified against the proposed project. He questioned the accountability of out-of-state owners over the next four decades.

“Who will ensure that Vesper will keep their promises?” Garrison asked. “What are the penalties of they don’t?”

He said he has ecological and health concerns as well.

“If our wells, groundwater and scenic waterways are contaminated, how does Vesper plan to mitigate? Construction noise during installation will be intolerable, and the hum of operation will be annoying at least. What are the long-term effects [of that hum]? I’m [also] fearful for the animals. Damage to the panels could release toxic materials.”

Among those in favor of the project were two representatives of local unions who testified separately that their members would benefit from jobs attached to construction and operation.

Randy Wilson, of Wilberforce-Clifton Road in Miami Township, said that while he lives adjacent to the proposed project, he “is comfortable” with the plans.

“I think we desperately need to transfer from fossil fuels,” he said. “The future is projects like

Kingwood.” He also believes that the reduction in the use of agricultural chemicals will make the drinking water safer.

Wilson’s wife, Bonnie, noted that “whether we like it or not, change is a constant, and one thing that needs changing is our use of fossil fuels.”

Solar projects are needed and have to go somewhere, she said.

“There’s never going to be someone who ways, ‘Please, put it in my backyard.’”

The public hearing followed several recent actions critical of the proposal.

• On Oct. 28, the Greene County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted in opposition to the project as proposed, primarily because it does not align with the county’s current land use plan. In August, the commissioners amended the county plan to include requirements for proposed solar developments. Among them is that such projects be outside the viewing area of any cultural, historic or recreational resource in the county.

• On Friday, Oct. 29, OPSB technical staff filed a report to the board recommending that the project not be approved. The report concluded that “local citizens and local governmental bodies” are “in general opposition to the project,” and that the project would “not serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.”

• On Monday, Nov. 15, during their regularly scheduled meeting, Miami Township Trustees passed a resolution opposing the project, citing that the area, zoned for agricultural use, has “prime soils” and is “adjacent to three of Ohio’s long protected natural areas, Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, John Bryan State Park and Glen Helen Nature Preserve.” The Trustees earlier this year filed to be an intervenor in the case.

While area officials have no power to approve or reject the Kingwood application, the OPSB has indicated it will consider their positions when making its decision, in acknowledgment of the recent passage of Ohio Senate Bill 52, according to the Dayton Daily News. The bill gives local governments a say in future projects such as Kingwood’s, which, however, is exempt because its application materials were filed before the bill’s passage.

Next in the process, the OPSB will hold an adjudicatory hearing on Dec. 13 in Columbus for testimony and cross-examination by intervenors and their legal representatives. If approved, Vesper has said that construction will begin in 2022.

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