The Geary County Commission unanimously voted to approve a conditional use permit that would allow a substation and solar array on property located on Hwy 57, south of Grandview Plaza, under certain conditions.
Those conditions are that the company, Flint Hills Rural Electric, will not add on to the solar array unless it is approved by the county commission, will abide by current and future EPA environmental standards, will provide an appropriate barrier and any electricity produced will stay in the service area.
Before the decision was made, area residents spoke during public comment to voice concerns with the project.
Margy Stewart said she is concerned about how rushed the project has been without much information or written documentation. Stewart said the public has not seen a documented need for the solar panels and substation.
“Rushing to a decision is a way of cutting the public out, and that always gives the impression that something’s not right,” she said. “Treating public trust lightly these days is a very damaging thing to do. I think we need to cherish and encourage public trust in the political process.”
Ron Young thanked the commission for the opportunity for public comment before the decision. He said the commission is being asked not only to permanently alter a landscape but to permanently alter the lives of people living in proximity to the proposed site.
“The people there have said at the planning commission that it will definitely be for the worst,” he said.
He said many of the community’s questions regarding the project have been answered with “I don’t know” or “that depends.” He said he has also not seen documentation, so the matter is being decided with little concrete information.
“These alternative energy sources, even in small boutique vanity projects like this, are wasteful, a huge waste of resources at every level of scale,” he said.
Mary Jefferson said she lives on the west border of the property proposed for the project. She said she has reached out to the company and has not received responses to some of the most important questions she has, which include documentation supporting the project. She said she wants to make sure regulations are in place to address the project.
“We want to make sure that we understand what we are approving, how it’s going to affect our county and our future generations,” she said. “I’m not opposed to the facilities. I am opposed to the location of the facilities. And I’m opposed to allowing it to happen before we have regulations in place.”
John Leister, who lives on South Hwy K-57, said his property is directly against the proposed site. He said is a combat military veteran who has severe PTSD. He said he and his wife bought their property to be in the country where he can have a safe space.
“I feel that the hum and the noise generated by this substation will run up my anxiety because I do have a problem with constant background noise, things like that, unexpected sounds,” he said. “50 feet from my bedroom is the edge of this plot they’re looking at. I see a need for this but why does this have to be so close to my house?”
He said he also holds concerns about light pollution, environmental impact and property value going down due to the substation.
Commissioner Trish Giordano said she doesn’t believe noise will be an issue with the substation, as the sound it emits is very quiet.
Janet Young, city clerk of Grandview Plaza, said there is no doubt that there is a need for the substation, but the city has not received any paperwork and wants more information before supporting the project.
“This does help the whole southern half of Geary County,” she said. “We will benefit greatly from it, and yes, we want to have a redundant system in place, but there are zoning issues and that kind of thing that I really think you need to take a look at.”
Katherine Vonholtz, who also lives on South Hwy K-57, said she brought a petition to the surrounding landowners and received many signatures.
“75% of the surrounding landowners do not want this. We’ve signed a petition saying no,” she said. “There is other space. They are hiding this from the public, and this is going to be a detriment for not only my neighbor, but my husband and I as well, as we are veterans as well.”
She said she wears a hearing aid which amplifies the white noise from the substation. She said the company has disregarded the public’s concerns, one of which is changing the safe environment she lives in.
“It’s quiet, it’s dark, it’s safe. If you take away that safety, you’re going to destroy our lives,” she said.
Flint Hills RECA member services manager Travis Griffin addressed some of the concerns, stating that 1,700 people in the area will benefit from the substation. He said it is concerning that the area doesn’t currently have a backup station, and it would be a benefit to the area.
He stated that the quickness of the project has to do with ensuring the organization can get a grant which will allow the company to construct the new substation with only a 10% cost to its members. He said the company still has to follow all EPA regulations for the environment.
He also stated the company has reassessed the location of the substation and ensured that it will be no closer than 250 feet from any property adjacent to it. He said it will have only two yard lights and will be fenced in for safety.
Giordano mentioned that in speaking with staff from the EPA, she learned that there are very strict regulations concerning solar farms.
“I am very familiar with PTSD, both of you, I truly am, and Alex is as well, I totally understand that,” she said. “I also understand how the federal government is with their grants, and while this wasn’t planned for 10 years, who knows what’s going to be happening in 10 years and if we’re going to have any money to do a substation, and then the county’s going to have to get involved to help Grandview Plaza, and I just feel like this is the time to do this, and if we need to add anything more stringent after this is done to prevent people from coming from out of state.”
Commissioner Keith Ascher said other companies coming from out of state was his main concern. He said they have to consider the 1,700 people the substation will benefit.
“This is not an easy decision,” he said. “It comes down to serving a large group, and that’s how I keep coming back to: it’s serving a lot of people on both sides, electrical and water.”
After the commission approved the permit, Alex Tyson, commission chair, asked Griffin to get more documentation out to the commission and landowners and be as transparent with the community as possible in this stage of the process.