WAHOO, Neb. — OPPD’s hoped-for solar farm near Yutan is headed to the Saunders County Board with a strike against it.
On Monday evening, after two hours of public testimony, the Saunders County Planning Commission voted 5-1 against a conditional-use permit for the project. Commissioner Jake Mayer was the sole supportive vote. The County Board, which isn’t bound by the Planning Commission’s vote, is scheduled to take up the issue May 11.
The solar farm would be on 500 acres of farmland in a rural area south of Yutan. Some residents have objected because the site is adjacent to a cemetery. A Pennsylvania company, Community Energy Inc., would develop the project and sell the electricity to the Omaha Public Power District.
The 81-megawatt solar farm would be the largest solar project in Nebraska and is the first step toward OPPD’s hoped-for 600 megawatts of solar power.
Several planning commissioners said they felt the process was being rushed.
Commissioner John Starns said he felt the project had been “dropped on our doorstep,” while Eric Nelson said he didn’t have all the facts needed to recommend approval.
“Things came fast,” he said.
Commissioner Mark Sander said he felt he was “being strong-armed.”
Community Energy submitted its request for a conditional-use permit on March 31 and held public meetings that day and on April 23.
Commissioner Dean Curtis said the project fits within the county’s zoning regulation. Curtis cast an initial vote in favor of the project, but then reversed his position and voted against it.
County Zoning Administrator Mitch Polacek said the zoning regulations allow a solar facility in areas zoned for agriculture or transitional agriculture, as well as commercial and industrial zoning.
The farmland in question is zoned agriculture.
Still, Nelson said the project didn’t “fit the definition of ag,” and Starns said it didn’t fit county regulations.
“I don’t feel comfortable that it meets the requirements of that area, so I’m going to vote no,” Starns said.
David Levy with Baird Holm law firm in Omaha, representing Community Energy, said the conditional-use permit application meets the requirements set by the county.
Starns asked County Attorney Joe Dobesh, who was attending the meeting in a personal capacity, his legal opinion on the matter.
“There is no legal prohibition on approving this permit,” Dobesh said.
OPPD President and CEO Tim Burke said the utility is seeking solar energy projects to meet its commitment to reduce carbon emissions as part of its Power with Purpose initiative. The Platteview Solar project is the only one in Saunders County, although similar projects are being considered in four other counties in the state, he said.
The project has been modified as a result of public input, Page Bolin, senior project developer for Community Energy, told the commission. Community Energy added more landscaping and buffer zones, changed intersections to enhance safety, removed panels from some sections to increase setbacks and made other changes.
“The effect of community input made this project better for us,” Bolin said.
Teresa Akeson, one of the leaders of the opposition group, offered several reasons the project should be denied, including, she said, that the application did not include all the necessary documentation.
“If nothing else, you need more time to review the documentation,” she said.
Akeson had previously presented a petition with 278 signatures of people against the project, and she said she has about 50 more.
The project will be the largest one undertaken in the county’s history, Levy, the attorney, said, and will benefit the county. It will generate $9.5 million in property taxes over 30 years, he said.
Levy presented a packet of 15 letters supporting the project, including one from former Yutan Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Johnson, a resident of Yutan.
Because the solar project keeps the land on the tax rolls, the Yutan school district and the county will have financial benefits, Johnson wrote.