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McCracken County board meeting next week to reconsider solar farm permit after previous denial

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Community Energy
A diagram of the proposed solar farm.

A McCracken County board is meeting next week to reconsider a conditional use permit for a proposed $60 million solar farm — what would be the county’s first ever — after the board denied the solar project such a permit earlier this month.

The scheduled meeting for Nov. 2 follows the McCracken Fiscal Court on Monday night passing a motion to ask the McCracken County Board of Adjustment to reconsider offering a conditional use permit for the solar farm.

In Kentucky, local boards of adjustment are responsible for approving conditional use permits for businesses and other land uses, or permits that have extra conditions stipulated for their use. McCracken County changed their zoning ordinances last year to allow conditional permits for solar farms in agricultural zones.

The McCracken County Board of Adjustment in a 3-2 vote last week denied a conditional use permit for McCracken County Solar, a subsidiary of Pennsylvania-based Community Energy Inc. seeking to establish a solar farm on more than 600 acres in western McCracken County.

Community Energy announced in May of 2020 it had reached an agreement with Big Rivers Electric Corporation to supply the utility 60 megawatts of energy through the proposed solar project. The permit denial earlier this month was the third board of adjustment meeting considering the conditional use permit. Meeting minutes from a September board meeting show a representative with Big Rivers Electric Corporation spoke in favor of the solar project, saying it would provide cheap electricity.

Ted Smith was one of the board members who voted to deny the conditional use permit. In an interview Tuesday, he said he has concerns about the changes to the landscape the solar installation might cause, along with the materials the solar panels are made out of.

“You've got 30 years of panels that will leach some materials into the land and into the soil. And, will it be farmable in 30 years? Nobody can really say that,” Smith said.

When asked about his claim that solar panels would leach materials, Smith said that he wasn’t sure if the solar panel materials in the long-term were harmful or not.

In a frequently asked questions document about the McCracken County project, Community Energy states there are no hazardous materials in the solar panels, the panels are solid state, contain no liquids and can’t spill onto the ground if damaged.

According to previous meeting minutes from August, Community Energy Regional Development Director Chris Killenberg told the board the solar panels have some lead but no other hazardous materials associated with thin film solar panels.

Smith said he isn’t against solar energy in McCracken County but wants there to be more public input on the proposed solar project. Board member Marc Williams, who previously voted against denying the permit, declined to comment until after the upcoming board meeting to reconsider the permit.

Chris Killenberg in an interview Tuesday said while he believes the board of adjustment was well-intentioned in its previous denial, Community Energy will most likely appeal the decision in court if the board doesn’t reconsider its decision.

“I think the information that we did enter meets the criteria for conditional use permit,” Killenberg said. “I think the fiscal court feels that this project did meet the intent of the ordinance and the intent of the county, and feels like the decision the board of adjustments made was just incorrect. And they'd like them to reconsider it. I think that's a good way to go and hopefully resolve the issue.”

Killenberg said the permit denial was the first in his experience with about 40 solar projects across the southeastern United States. Community Energy also has proposed Kentucky-based solar projects in Henderson County, Meade County, Hopkins County and Daviess County.

During fiscal court discussion Monday night of the motion asking the board of adjustment to reconsider the conditional use permit, Judge-Executive Craig Clymer said he had “more information” than the board of adjustment about the importance of the solar project.

“A solar energy farm to produce green energy is extremely important to potential projects that we have desiring to locate a let's just say multi-billion dollar project in our county,” Clymer said. “Who they are, where they want to be, what they do, all these sorts of things are confidential.”

Clymer said federal tax incentives offered to companies that utilize green energy such as solar could “make or break” a large company coming to McCracken County.

According to Community Energy, the solar installation will have a lifespan of about 30 years and create two to three long-term, full-time jobs associated with the maintenance of the site.

Greg Cannon, McCracken County Planning and Zoning Administrator, said the upcoming special meeting of the board of adjustment will take place Nov. 2 at 5 p.m. CT at the county emergency management complex.

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Community Energy
The proposed location of the solar farm in McCracken County.

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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