Solar debate hits western Pennsylvania farming communities

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a sign reading roofs not fields no solar farm sits along a road with farm fields in the background
A sign sits next to Route 168 in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

ENON VALLEY, Pa. — It was standing room only in the Little Beaver Township municipal building for the supervisors’ meeting May 3.

It’s not usually like that. Meetings are typically quiet and short, according to one of the township’s police officers that regularly attends.

People crowded into the meeting room to talk about solar. A Texas-based renewable energy company proposed building a 175-megawatt solar project in the township. Nearly 1,000 acres of land has been leased by Tri Global Energy.

A group of farmers and residents expressed concerns about the impact such a large scale project would have on the rural Lawrence County community. It’s a scene playing out in a number of farming towns across Pennsylvania and surrounding states as solar becomes the next energy boom for the region. 

But, unlike neighboring states, where the siting controls for utility scale solar projects rest at the state level, Pennsylvania communities must decide for themselves whether to allow these developments in. Approval for utility scale solar projects in Pennsylvania is done entirely at the local level, through township and county level zoning and planning ordinances.

So, it’s left to the residents and the neighbors they elected to lead to decide the winners and losers of the solar boom.

“I’m not happy about advocating for [zoning], to be honest, but I think that industrial solar is so unique in terms of the landmass that it requires and the impacts that it has,” said resident and farmer Stuart Day, during the public comment period at the meeting. “And I think this is a very specific and unique case. And I think it leaves us very vulnerable to not have anything on the books.”

Concerns

The loss of agricultural land and the trickle down impacts that would have on the rest of the local economy and the community was foremost on people’s minds at the township meeting May 3. 

“There are a number of 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds in the community who are actively farming that are making a living or at least a partial portion of their living on the farm. We’re already seeing disruptions in the renting process just in what’s already been taking place,” said Alex Leslie, a dairy farmer.

a man stands in front of a crowd of peopel sitting to speak about solar farms
Stuart Day speaks during public comment on May 3 at the Little Beaver Township supervisors’ meeting. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

Others were concerned about what happens to the solar panels when the lease is up and they’ve outlived their useful life. Mining and drilling for oil and natural gas have left their mark on the area.

“My biggest worry is reclamation,” said Day, who runs Spring Water Tree Farm, with his wife and father-in-law, Jade and Joe Kozlina. “We’ve seen an enormous lack of accountability and reclamation in the oil and gas industry.”

The opposition to large-scale solar is often boiled down to “not in my backyard,” but it was noted how some of the local landowners who had leased land for solar put in acreage that was not near their homes.

“That’s fine for them to lease those properties that are away from their homesteads, for one simple reason. They don’t want to look at it,” said Jim Bingham, of Bingham Stock Farm. “I know a lot of stories where people have large tracts of ground and guess where all the panels they want to sign up go? Over the hill. Closer to the neighbor’s house.”

There was one person who expressed outright support for the solar project. Larry Craig, who signed land into a solar lease with Tri Global Energy, brought up the issue of property rights. 

“What’s the difference between excluding corn production or soybean production or hay production,” Craig said. “Telling somebody what they can and can’t do with their own land, especially after they’ve bought the land, paid taxes on it and maintain it … it’s not right.”

In addition to the solar panels, Tri Global Energy is proposing building a storage facility in Little Beaver Township. The company did not respond to a request for comments or further details about the project.

Zoning

Little Beaver is one of many municipalities in the state that lacks any governmental guidance on solar.  A review of the state’s local zoning ordinances by Penn State University’s Dickinson Law School found that 87% of zoning codes provide no guidance on solar developments.

Little Beaver has no zoning ordinance, so it wouldn’t be just a matter of adding language regarding solar. The board of supervisors would have to build a zoning ordinance from the ground up. And many residents don’t want zoning regulations, even if it means stopping or limiting a solar project.

Even if it does that, solicitor Ryan Long said there still might be issues in enacting the zoning retroactively on leases that were signed before the zoning existed.

North Beaver, a neighboring municipality to the north, passed a zoning ordinance last year limiting solar developments to industrial land. Vesper Energy, another Texas-based energy company, is proposing to build a 400-megawatt solar facility on more than 2,500 acres in the township.

That seemed like the answer to the solar question in North Beaver. The new zoning ordinance would kill the ability for the developer to put in the project on the farmland it leased. 

Meetings in North Beaver, however, have been heating up again this year. Representatives from Vesper have been attending meetings to talk about the project, as have residents who are opposed to it. 

In Little Beaver, the supervisors formed a committee of local landowners after the May 3 meeting to look into the solar and zoning issue.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 800-837-3419.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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