There could be a solar farm in Henry County by 2023.

County government and residents hope rules are in place before then outlining what something like that will look like.

Henry County Planning Commission hosted a special “listening session” Tuesday to give community members a chance to share their concerns about the draft solar ordinance that was made available in June.

Planning commission president Ed Yanos limited the meeting to two hours, with each speaker limited to three minutes.

Yanos gave an exception to Denise Spooner of Madison County. Spooner is a member of the Madison County Board of Zoning Appeals and had planned to speak to the Henry County planners in March. Her original speaking date was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Impact on neighbors

Spooner said solar farms can bring down property values, especially if they surround homes on three or four sides.

“People are literally surrounded and living inside an industrial power plant,” she said.

Spooner recommended the Henry County solar ordinance should also protect its “prime farmland.” The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture defines prime farmland as “land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops and is available for these uses.”

“If you take out farm land, farm land produces a lot of money,” Spooner said.

She later added that solar project developers should talk with local Realtors to figure out how these projects could impact the value of surrounding homes.

Several Henry County residents prepared handouts for planning-commission members outlining “missing requirements” needed for a “sufficient ordinance.”

“If large-scale solar you must have, do so while protecting your residents,” said local woman Patsy Conyers.

Conyers suggested tall earthen berms and attractive fencing that would beautify the area while protecting neighboring homes.

Rosalind Richey suggested in a letter to the planners that any parcels containing an industrial electricity generator, such as a large-scale solar array, should first be rezoned from agriculture to industrial. They should also have to get a special exception use through the Henry County Board of Zoning Appeals, she said.

Richey said solar developers should notify local elected officials and the local media before signing leases in Henry County.

“The information should include the scope of the project, the areas involved, and as much additional information as reasonable,” she said. “We expect transparency from our government officials, so why would we not expect the same from potential business partners?”

Impact on nature

Julie Borgmann spoke on behalf of the Red-Tail Land Conservancy, a private not-for-profit that holds several land trusts in Henry County. Borgmann is Red-Tail’s executive director.

She praised language in the draft ordinance that would require any new solar farm to plant local native wildflowers and pollinator plants. This could have a big impact preserving the land under the solar panels and surrounding farm land. Plus, she said, it only needs mowed once a year, which would save the electric company money, too.

“The environment can win. The community can win. The solar company could win,” Borgmann said.

Henry County Council member Betsy Mills, speaking as a rural citizen, said there is no reason the planning commission should rush the process on a final solar ordinance. She said the draft is a good place to start, but could use more provisions to protect neighboring properties.

Mills asked other members of the community to offer input on the ordinance.

“Let’s make this thing as strong as it could possibly be,” she said.

NextEra Energy, the company wanting to build the Greensboro Solar project by 2023, submitted a letter to the planning commission, too.

The company said Henry County’s preliminary draft ordinance has “many provisions which form the foundation for a fair and balanced ordinance” that protects citizens and also encourages development of renewable energy in Henry County.

NextEra raised concerns about language in the ordinance that would make it “difficult” to build a solar farm in the area.

In particular, NextEra pointed to more specific landscaping requirements than “is efficient or practical to site a Large Scale project.” The company also said it could be difficult to get enough seed mix of native plants to cover the entire area of the planned solar farm.

Planner comments

Planning commissioner Dan Roach pointed out that electricity has to come from somewhere and will likely be from solar panels.

Member Dale Cole suggested Zoning Administrator Darrin Jacobs take the information from Tuesday and add it to the draft ordinance.

Planning commissioner member Rachel Clark suggested a town hall assembly where residents could explain their ideas and concerns in more than a three-minute time limit.

The planning commission may also have work sessions regarding the draft solar ordinance and/or take organized field trips to local operating solar farms.

Yanos asked Henry County community members to send in concerns and suggestions within the next two weeks.

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