Effort to revive solar farm conditional use permit fails with Scotts Bluff County Board

Effort to revive solar farm conditional use permit fails with Scotts Bluff County Board
June 4th, 2024 | Scott Miller

An effort to revive the conditional use permit application for the solar farm proposed in southwestern Scotts Bluff County failed during the Commissioners Monday meeting.

Chair Ken Meyer placed the item on the agenda, asking if any of the three commissioners who voted against the application would offer a motion to rescind the decision from their meeting May 6.

Kyle Long, the local attorney who represents Dunlieh Energy, asked for specific reasons against the application, and related the desire of his clients and the Preston family to keep the process alive. During his statement before the body, Long said the company’s proposal and application as amended reflected a commitment to responsible development and environmental stewardship.

“Situla has chosen to approach the commissioners tonight with a spirit of partnership, rather than litigation, rather than opposition. Situla seeks to engage with this commission to understand your concerns and explore potential solutions, emphasizing our commitment to the community collaboration and mutual benefit, and not to positional issues,” said Long.

Charlie Knapper, who had been criticized for his interaction with Dunlieh Vice President Scott Ickes during the May meeting, was the first to start discussing specific reasons he opposed the permit as amended and presented, noting he did not get a full opportunity to do so because of numerous interruptions at the public hearing. Knapper said among the reasons was advice from a consultant who had much more experience in zoning for utility-scale renewable energy projects. “This company told us that utility-scale solar power is not listed or defined in our current zoning regulations,” said Knapper. “It goes on to say that if it is not listed or defined, it is prohibited. That is a defining principle of zoning regulations.”

Commissioner Russ Reisig was next to detail his objections, which included a reiteration of his stance that the landowner should be the one who applied for the permit, not Dunlieh or Situla. Long replied his read of that subject, as well as the County Attorney’s, was that it was a proper application, to which Reisig responded he did not think was the case. He then repeated his opposition to the proposed use of a bond to address decommissioning costs, saying it was inadequate. “I would like to protect the next generation with a decommissioning plan, and all the decommissioning plan would say is that the landowner will pledge their land if the contractor doesn’t clean it up, that it’s not a proposal that the people (public) don’t have to pay for this thing,” said Reisig. “What it will do, it would never happen that way, but it would give the landowner enough incentive to for him to write a contract with enough teeth in it.”

Decommissioning issues were also cited as important by Mark Harris, who noted that with the conditional use permit process, the Board had the ability to set those conditions they deemed appropriate for such a project. However, Harris also said he thought more guidance would be warranted.

“If we go any further, we (need to) have legal representation at any meeting we have and every discussion we have about this. Decommissioning is an important thing for me, and the part about emergency agencies and personnel, that those are dealt with,” Harris said.

Meyer responded that the biggest thing he asked was that the Board look at the conditional use items that they have the authority to impose, “and I don’t know that we did that. I think we looked at those, and then added some of our own. Whether they meet the requirement to where they’re legal to do, I don’t have any idea. But there are certain items with a conditional use permit that you have the authority to ask for.”

An emergency response plan was also on the mind of Michael Blue, who said he felt he could not get a straight answer from company vice president Scott Ickes on that and other issues during the May hearing. Blue said after talking with local fire chiefs and reviewing an after-action report on an incident at an Arizona renewable energy project, he believed what had been proposed was inadequate. “I have real concerns about the safety of our first responders if they have to respond to an incident with this facility,” commented Blue. “And I also received numerous calls, and in-person visits from my constituents from my district, and your districts, saying please don’t vote for this project. I had no one before we voted say ‘I’d sure like to have you vote for this project’.”

Knapper concluded his remarks with several additional objections, saying first that allowing a solar power generation facility was not fiscally responsible, which Long had earlier claimed it would be. Knapper said he had talked with numerous public power district officials, who told him solar power actually causes higher prices for the consumer.

He explained federal regulations required when the sun is shining, power districts must purchase solar energy, and coal-fired plants are forced to reduce their output. Knapper said without competition among various generation methods, solar farm operators can name their price in the market place. He also questioned the number of jobs to be created, saying a project twice the size south of Cheyenne would only involve about 240 workers, as well as doubting a stated December 2024 timeline for construction to start.

Knapper held up a report from the Western Area Power Administration, saying a WAPA feasibility study indicated three studies would need to be completed first that will take years, and the person he talked to that gave him the report said an environmental (NEPA) study of the project could take two to three years alone, so the Dunlieh construction estimate was not realistic.

He said he anticipated the existing moratorium on new renewable energy projects to allow a comp plan and zoning review would have to be extended, due in part because the county had devoted so much time on the Situla application.

No motion was offered to rescind the May vote, and at the end of the meeting, public comment was evenly split between those saying the county should allow the project to move forward, and those thanking Knapper, Reisig and Blue for blocking the proposal.


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