Commissioners hold public meeting on Painter Creek Solar


By Tammy Watts

GREENVILLE — The Darke County Board of Commissioners held a special evening meeting Feb. 28 at Greenville Middle School. The purpose of the forum was to gather input regarding the proposed Painter Creek Solar project, and citizens were invited to give impact statements, not to exceed three minutes. More than 100 people were in attendance, and of the 30 Darke County residents who spoke, 28 were against the plan.

The most pressing concerns reiterated by speakers throughout the evening included loss of prime agricultural land, and flooding. The potential for tile destruction from the approximately 300 posts per acre that would be driven to support the solar panels, weighed heavily on residents’ minds, especially those who, collectively, already invested over $80,000 to resolve water runoff issues. Wildlife displacement, specifically, federally protected bald eagles, which have been sighted in the proposed project’s area, was another environmental concern, along with the possibility of chemical leeching from the panels into aquifers, and noise pollution from inverters. Homeowners also cited plummeting property values, due to the proximity of the solar panels, and loss of Darke County’s scenic beauty that they enjoy from their patios, or driving around the countryside.

Many took issue with Apex Clean Energy’s practices of obtaining “good neighbor agreements,” which subsequently prohibit signers from speaking against the solar project, and that the company has outlined no clear process as to how the solar array will be decommissioned in 30-40 years.

“We’re the guinea pigs here,” stated Connie Smith, a member of the Darke County Citizen Preservation Association, whose Facebook page now boasts 1,200 members.

For John Beard, the crux of the issue is local control. He explained that the community would have no influence over “mitigation techniques to prevent watershed, ecosystem protections for wildlife, or preventative pollution protocols,” among other aspects of the operation. Beard also warned that Apex is seeking to sign a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) agreement with Darke County, as it has in other communities. The Painter Creek Solar website states the estimated tax revenue for the county would be $1.1 million per year, for the duration of the project. According to Beard, however, 165 megawatts, taxed at the proper rate, should generate $4.3 million in revenue. “This would save Apex Clean Energy nearly 87 million dollars over 30 years, but cost the citizens of Darke County,” he said.

Several other speakers pointed out that local schools would lose $7,000 per pupil if families move away because of the solar project.

Eldon Erdmann provided some levity when he asked commissioners for permission to read a statement from a citizen who could not attend the meeting.

“I let one in,” Commissioner Matt Aultman responded, referring to a previous letter read by proxy, “so I have to let yours in, too.”

“It’s kind of like Apex; once you let one in, then we have to let in another, and another,” Erdmann quipped. Landowners in Monroe Township, and north of Rossburg, have begun receiving letters urging them to sign leases with the companies Tenaska, based in Nebraska, and Sunpower by esaSolar.

When Apex Field Manager Tyler Fehrman approached the microphone, audience members questioned if the meeting was supposed to be specifically for Darke County residents. After a brief discussion among the Commissioners, Larry Holmes advised that it was a public meeting, and Fehrman would be permitted to speak.

“This is an economic opportunity which will create jobs, energy for the grid, and generational wealth,” Fehrman stated, claiming that he was speaking for many people in the community, who are allegedly afraid to speak in favor of the project, due to harassment and intimidation by opponents. After speaking, Fehrman left abruptly, without addressing any of the concerns raised.

Joni Jones cited the failures former President Barack Obama’s clean energy incentives. “All those companies are out of business now,” she stated, alluding to fears that Darke County would be left to clean up Painter Creek Solar, should Apex go bankrupt.

Solyndra, a solar panel company, collapsed in 2011, leaving taxpayers liable for $535 million in federal loan guarantees. Abound Solar, another solar cell company, received $400 million in federal loans in 2010, only to file bankruptcy in 2012, abandoning its facilities. Furthermore, the company failed to clean up 100,000 solar panels, and 4,100 gallons of toxic waste.

Jones also took issue with Fehrman’s statements, countering that, “We already have generational wealth; they’re not bringing us anything that we don’t already have here in droves. We are blessed.”

Evan Weaver, 23, represented the younger generation of farmers. “I like to hunt, farm, and I don’t want to look at solar panels all along my drive down Jaysville St. Johns Road for the next 30 to 40 years,” he said. The project would put limits on hunting, as firing weapons near solar panels is prohibited.

Despite Fehrman’s allegations of intimidation and harassment, Wilma Niswonger spoke in favor of the project. “I can do with my property what I want,” she said, adding that in her 70 years as a Darke County resident, no one asked her about building the ethanol plant, or other developments that are now within view of her home.

Her son, Mark Niswonger, agreed. “I stand to gain a lot from this; I’m the next generation, and I’m not a farmer.” He added that he did not understand all the “doom and gloom,” from the community. “Maybe there’s things I’m not up on, and I need to research,” he admitted. As the meeting adjourned, attendees, including the Niswongers, lingered to continue the discussion, and exchange information.

There was a large law enforcement presence, including Darke County Sheriff Mark Whittaker, and several sheriff’s deputies, as well as officers from the Greenville Police Dept. The commissioners had requested patrols to provide security at the meeting. “We thought it was prudent,” stated Commissioner Mike Stegall. “We thank them for showing up, and there wasn’t any trouble.”

Apex is expected to submit a formal application for the Painter Creek Solar project to the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) in late summer or early fall 2022.

Contact Daily Advocate Reporter Tammy Watts at [email protected].

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