Sponsor says: Bill gives residents a voice on wind, solar projects

Larry Limpf

Approximately 400 persons representing industry, local governments, environmental groups, or themselves have provided testimony before the Energy & Public Utilities Committee of the Ohio Senate on a bill that would establish a process for township residents to approve or reject the placement of solar facilities or wind farms.
The committee has held six hearings on Senate Bill 52, which would permit a township board of trustees, by a resolution, to designate all or part of the unincorporated area of a township as an energy development district to allow for the construction of a solar power or wind turbine facility.
The bill defines a utility facility as “economically significant” or “large.” An economically significant wind farm refers to wind turbines with a single interconnection with the electrical grid capable of generating five to 50 megawatts. A large solar facility or wind farm is defined as an electric generating plant capable of generating more than 50 megawatts.
When he introduced the bill in February, Sen. Bill Reineke, R – Tiffin, said it gives residents input on solar and wind development projects by filing a referendum petition through a local board of elections after a resolution is approved by the local township trustees. That would pause any certificates issued by the Ohio Power Siting Board if filed within 90 days after being issued.
He described the bill as permissive in its intent to allow residents the ability to decide what goes on in their own backyards.
“This is a fair bill that notifies developers of a potential referendum ahead of time while still ensuring that locals have a say,” he said.
Michael Kerschner, president of the Seneca County Board of Commissioners, provided proponent testimony on the bill before the committee, noting his county may have seen the most wind development activity in the state.
He said residents need a stronger voice in the siting process.
“Over the years we have had local meetings where hundreds of people have pleaded with us to help them but there was nothing we could do. Imagine that. A duly elected member of the board of county commissioners – powerless. The pun is intended. You talk about the need to develop more and more power but you do it by taking all the power away from local government,” he said.
A substitute version of the bill was introduced in late May and substitutes county governments for township boards in some cases in the approval process.

Landowner rights infringed
Jenna Reese, director of state policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said the bureau opposes the bill because it infringes on landowners’ rights.
“Recent versions of Senate Bill 52 that would allow for an after-the-fact local referendum to be called or creating new statewide land use restrictions go many steps beyond solving the problem of more transparency and local input in favor of unconscionable restrictions of landowner rights. Restrictions such as these are a slippery slope that will have long-term consequences for Ohio’s agriculture industry,” she said.
But she conceded the current siting process is often tilted against local officials who are ignored in the OPSB permit format.
“The current process allows developers to simply go through the motions of local outreach and ‘box-checking,’ knowing their project proposal is likely to be approved regardless of the thoroughness of their work.” she said. “They are not actually engaging communities because there is no real consequence of local opposition. The opportunity for public comment is so far into the siting process that it is evident it has no meaningful impact in most cases.”
The farm bureau is proposing the process be changed to include two pre-application meetings where the project is located. The first would be an informational meeting in which developers would be required to disclose the scope of a project and the second would be a conference with OPSB staff required to answer questions from the public.
Steven Crum, representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said he opposes the bill. He said solar power can be a boost in rural areas that have been hit harder than other locales by the recession a decade ago and again by the pandemic.
“Solar development in these areas has the potential to not only generate revenue within the community that can be used to support critical services and infrastructure…these areas need the jobs that solar stands to create,”
Crum said.
Joseph DeMare, co-chairman of the Wood County Green Party, urged members of the committee to vote no on the bill.
“This clearly is not an attempt to promote local control. If that were the case, also included in this bill would be requirements for local referenda on other energy sources. Fracking pads, natural gas generation plants, energy pipelines, nuclear power plants, coal plants, and other energy sources and energy infrastructure have a history of causing environmental damage in the State of Ohio. Wind and solar do not,” he said.
Marisa Myers, director of governmental affairs at the Ohio Township Association, said the substitute bill would extend the power of counties in wind and solar development and counties already control incentives for projects such as the payments-in-lieu-of-taxes program.
“(Substitute) SB 52 allows a county to designate an energy development district for all or part of the unincorporated area (townships), which would allow for large wind and solar projects. The energy development district would be subject to a referendum. Alternatively, the county may adopt a resolution outright prohibiting large wind and solar projects, which would prevent a developer from filing an application with the power siting board for a certificate. The township(s) that would host the projects would not have authority in either of these processes,” she said.

Editor’s note: SB 52 was passed by the senate on June 2


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