Sedgwick County regulators hold up giant solar farm on Wichita’s outskirts amid objections from neighbors

Sedgwick County looked poised to clear the way for the Chisholm Trail solar project near Maize. But objections from nearby residents have stalled local regulations and construction.

By Haines Eason

Sedgwick County appeared poised to follow its ban on wind farms with widely vetted regulations that would allow acre after acre of solar panels pumping renewable energy into the electrical grid.

Instead, the county still has a moratorium on the construction of large-scale solar farms.

“Boils down to a simple phrase: not in my backyard,” said Walt Chappell, a solar power booster and longtime critic of local government.

The stall leaves the industry frustrated and some environmentalists upset that objections from neighbors who’d be near a proposed Chisholm Trail utility-scale solar project west of Maize may have blocked the project. 

Sedgwick County needed regulations for the relatively new form of industrial development — and it got high marks from the industry and federal agencies for what the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission drafted.

But after the county was confronted with a specific solar farm proposed for the northwest suburbs of Wichita, local officials balked in March and extended the county’s moratorium for six months.

What planning and public policy experts say

Kimberly Svaty is a Topeka-based lobbyist for the firm, Invenergy, that wants to build the Chisholm Trail Solar Energy Center. She said Sedgwick County’s original regulations struck a thoughtful balance for property owners, project developers and the public.

“If you were to ask any developer, almost nationwide, ‘What is a county solar regulation that you would hold out (as a model for others)?’” she said, “there (are) typically four counties in the country, and one was Sedgwick County.”

But the Chisholm Trail project prompted county commissioners to ask the MAPC to look into revised regulations. After that, the county commission extended its temporary ban on new solar farms. 

Then the county announced that it had contracted with Virginia-based government consulting firm Berkley Group to propose regulations. The firm’s recommendations are expected by early July. The current moratorium expires Sept. 13.

What’s the holdup for the Chisholm Trail solar project?

Chappell, who has worked with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and helped write the first solar energy commercialization strategy for the U.S. Department of Energy, said people living near the site are pushing unfounded claims that the project could pollute groundwater.

He also said those nearby residents have erroneously suggested that the glare of solar panels would invite bird strikes and blind aircraft pilots. 

Solar arrays near airports Denver and Sacramento have not caused those problems, he said.

Chappell said Sedgwick County officials may claim they need to weigh solar development against future growth the way Johnson County has. But Sedgwick County isn’t growing nearly as fast as Pottawatomie, Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth and Douglas counties, which collectively grew an average of 10.4% between 2010 and 2020. During that same time, Sedgwick County’s population grew 5%. The bulk of that growth — over 15,000 of roughly 25,000 new residents  — came in Wichita. 

“In Johnson County you don’t have any place to put a 2,000- or 3,000-acre solar farm,” Chappell said. “They have decided they want to have (farms) pushed out at least a mile or two away from the urban area of influence.”

What Johnson County did

Jay Leipzig, Johnson County’s director of planning, housing and community development, said that county tried to balance concerns by requiring a 1.5-mile buffer between solar farms and the boundary of any city.

“(It) really comes down to the overall size of the project, the vicinity from adjacent cities and not inhibiting their growth on future annexation and future growth patterns,” he said. 

Leipzig said the county wanted to encourage growth and steer how it happened in rural areas. 

He said most of Johnson County’s conditional use permits run for 10 or 15 years, so he and his team had to stretch their thinking when it came to solar.

“We have a 25-year conditional use permit requirement for solar, for example, which most of these long-term leases are about 25 to 30 years,” he said.

A tale of two Kansas counties 

Chappell sees Sedgwick County as a much different place. Johnson County is a giant sprawl of subdivisions. In Sedgwick County, Wichita provides an urban center and the density thins out the farther you travel from downtown until it transforms into rural spaces.

Chappell said Sedgwick County shouldn’t try to adopt Johnson County’s approach because the places are so different.

“Some people think, ‘We’re going to need to grow. We don’t want a solar collector farm right there in the middle of where we think we’re going to build a housing development or have another Walmart strip mall or whatever,’” he said.

But Chappell said most of the land near where the Chisholm Trail project would go is unincorporated. And, he said, some farmers there already have a lease with a solar company “and had a lease in 2019.” 

“They’ve been receiving (lease) payments,” Chappell said, “so they will hold the land once this project moves forward.”

A timeline of Sedgwick’s journey toward a solar energy plan

And at the Statehouse …

State Sen. John Doll, a Republican from Garden City, said he sees small pockets of opposition from some Democrats who don’t want developments so close to urban areas and some Republicans who see renewables as a threat to coal plants.

A solar farm near Lawrence, Kansas, collecting rays for electricity. (Credit: Haines Eason/The Beacon)

“We’ve got a group of people that think the world’s flat,” he said. “They think that windmills cause cancer and that sort of thing. But I think they’re quite a bit in the minority.”

He said local regulators should decide where to allow solar farms. 

“If the local people are getting upset … well, don’t put it there,” he said. “It’s simple as that.”

State Sen. Marci Francisco, a Democrat from Lawrence, also said local officials should control whether and where to OK solar farms.

“This is clearly a local decision because it is zoning,” she said. “The thing is, not a lot of people have had experience living next to solar. So our imaginations sometimes get the best of us.”

Francisco’s district will soon include the recently approved 159-megawatt, 600-plus-acre Kansas Sky Energy Center solar farm, an Evergy project.

The local conversation swirling around the Kansas Sky project roiled the liberal community. In the end, though, Douglas County commissioners voted unanimously to approve the project.

Yet both lawmakers said those local officials should try to accommodate solar farms.

“We’ll always need energy,” Doll said. “We’re not going to run out of wind. And if we run out of sun, we’re not going to be around to talk about it. So we’re talking about two sources of energy that’s going to be there and it’s best we utilize it.”

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon