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Sedgwick County passes six-month ban on new commercial-scale solar projects

A sign opposing a new commercial-scale solar farm on 53rd Street outside of Colwich city limits.
Celia Hack
/
KMUW
A sign opposing a new commercial-scale solar farm on 53rd Street outside of Colwich city limits.

A proposed project near Maize and Colwich has raised concerns among neighbors about environmental and economic impacts.

The Sedgwick County Commission passed a six-month moratorium this week on building new commercial-scale solar projects within unincorporated areas of the county.

The temporary ban comes as conversations heat up around a proposed solar facility on rural land between Maize and Colwich. Invenergy, a multinational corporation based in Chicago, wants to build a 103 megawatt solar facility on farmland between the two cities. The corporation is currently leasing about 750 acres of land for the project, according to a July presentation from Invenergy.

The moratorium is meant to allow the county’s planning department to study potential new regulations for solar farms. It doesn’t apply to solar projects inside city limits or solar panels added to individual homes or businesses.

Invenergy has not yet applied for a zoning permit to start building. County commissioner David Dennis said he wanted the commission to finalize any regulation changes before it has to consider specific applications.

“I’m going to be in support of this moratorium,” said county commissioner Ryan Baty. “It’s not a statement of whether I like or dislike, approve or disapprove of solar and the technology of solar.

“I don’t know enough information about what we’re walking into as a community with these technologies. I have questions about environmental impact, aesthetic impact, financial impact.”

A public relations representative from Invenergy stated that the Chisholm Trail Solar Energy Center – the official name of the project – would continue to work closely with local partners.

“We look forward to the project providing significant economic benefits to the community including generating millions of dollars in public revenue over the life of the project and creating approximately 200 jobs during construction,” the statement read.

The project’s website states that after construction, the project will employ two permanent operations and maintenance employees.

The county started discussing renewable energy regulations in 2019, when it decided to ban any commercial scale wind energy projects. At the time, the county decided commercial solar projects could be built if they complied with specific regulations. That included an environmental assessment for each project and height restrictions, along with several other guidelines.

But the major project between Maize and Colwich raised concern about whether those regulations were sufficient – especially as neighboring counties, like Butler, passed more stringent ones.

“We don’t consider Butler County’s regulations perfect, but they are a lot better as far as setbacks, where you can place these things, how far you can place them from people’s houses,” said Leroy Bosch, a Colwich resident who lives next to the parcels of land proposed for the solar project.

“We have residents out here in the area they’re talking about that will have half an acre that they live on and be totally surrounded by solar panels, 360 degrees,” Bosch said. ”That’s really not my idea of a good time.”

In Butler County, solar projects have to be 1,000 feet from residential dwellings and 150 feet from public roads.

Bosch said residents are concerned about environmental and economic impacts of solar – such as whether the projects will contaminate water, decrease property values or stifle development in the area.

“Maize is the fastest growing city in the entire state of Kansas, and they have a large industrial district to the west of Maize,” said Dennis, whose commission district includes the city. “... This project, it’s going to cut off growth of Maize going west for the future. So there’s concern for that.”

But some advocates for clean energy don’t see the need for more regulations. Dorothy Barnett is the executive director for Kansas’ Climate and Energy Project, a nonprofit that supports transitioning to clean energy options.

"Their solar regulations, the ones they have in place now, they seem sufficient to protect the health and safety of the residents of Sedgwick County," Barnett said.

“Solar really is one of the most benign forms of energy production. Because once it’s built, there’s very little sound, no lights, no issues with a lot of movement that would be bothersome to neighbors. It’s pretty contained in fenced areas.”

Barnett added that she understands the questions around solar because it’s new to many Kansas residents. But she said investing in solar panels is a positive environmental step for the state to avoid reliance on fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide gas, which warms the planet and causes climate change.

“We really believe and know that in order for Kansas to remain a healthy and resilient state, we have to be able to take climate action, and we have to do it soon,” Barnett said. “We have to get off of fossil fuels if we’re going to be able to keep a livable planet.”

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.