Proposed Solar Facilities Amendments

aerial view of solar panel farm

Considering the use of Utility-Scale Solar Facilities in Johnson County

Since the beginning of 2021, Johnson County Government has been exploring the possibility of changing the Rural Comprehensive Plan and Zoning and Subdivision Regulations to allow for Utility-Scale Solar Facilities (USSFs) in the unincorporated area of the county.

Residents or commercial properties can already install solar energy systems for their own energy needs, and these accessory uses are allowed under county regulations. However, USSFs provide power to large areas, and these facilities are not currently addressed in the county regulations.

The research and input gathering on USSFs has been conducted by the county’s Planning Commission in collaboration with the Planning, Housing and Community Development Department and has included consultant expertise and feedback from residents, area cities and industry representatives.

The Issue

USSFs pose unique challenges to the unincorporated areas and nearby cities. Those challenges must be balanced with present and future energy needs and can be mitigated with proper controls.

The county should be cautious when determining these new regulatory controls. USSFs are very large scale projects. They can utilize hundreds or thousands of acres, far bigger than other land uses in Johnson County’s unincorporated area. USSFs have long lifespans: 20-40 years, and in some cases longer.

Developers of USSFs often use existing fields or farms for their projects. Larger projects can require collecting multiple parcels, which are sometimes located in different areas. The process to plan for a USSF includes creating setbacks from the project borders, screening with existing trees or new landscaping, allotting space for fences and driveways, providing corridors for the movement of wildlife, and then placing the solar panels.

Because of their very large size, there are two important issues to consider while moving forward with USSFs:

  • How would these projects impact the development and growth of cities?
  • What about the preservation of open space and rural character?

Planning staff and the Planning Commission took these questions and more into account and determined that regulations for USSFs can be created with proper development standards.

Solar Amendments: Timeline of the Process, timeline of five steps with blue solar panels in background

The Process (as of May 11, 2022)

The Planning Commission, with the assistance of county staff and a consultant, The Berkley Group, worked to identify USSF characteristics (i.e. large scale, wide geographic distribution and long life spans) and the corresponding impacts on, among other things, future city development, rural character and open space and the environment. The Planning Commission held nine public meetings (seven of them allowed for public comment including city comment) and a public hearing to gather feedback from residents and other stakeholders.

The BOCC received information on solar facilities sitting as the Committee of the Whole in March 2021 and February 2022.  During a special meeting on the regulation of solar facilities on April 4, 2022, the BOCC voted to return the proposed solar amendments to the Planning Commission with a request to review and reconsider the following items:

  1. Clarification regarding off-site street maintenance and repair.
  2. Clarification that battery energy storage facilities are allowed related to Medium-Scale Solar Facilities.
  3. The addition of a performance standard related to battery energy storage facilities and the requirement of applicants to supply, and assume the costs, of specialized fire safety equipment or other protections, if necessary for such use.
  4. Additional suggested clarifications recommended by planning staff.
  5. A 25 year Conditional Use Permit term instead of the Planning Commission’s recommended 20 years, with a one-time automatic extension for five years if the project remains compliant.
  6. A Maximum Project Area of 2,000 acres, instead of the Planning Commission’s recommended 1,000 acres, including a waiver option.
  7. A 1.5 mile minimum distance from a city, instead of the Planning Commission’s recommended 2 miles, including a waiver option.
  8. A consideration of adding CUP standards if necessary for impact on surrounding landowners due to the addition of transmission lines to service solar facilities.

During a special meeting on May 10, 2022, the Planning Commission considered the eight items as requested and submitted to the BOCC the following recommendation that the solar facility regulations include:

  1. Clarifications regarding off-site street maintenance and repair to include a requirement that repairs shall be completed in a timely manner.
  2. Clarifications that battery energy storage facilities are allowed related to Medium-Scale Solar Facilities.
  3. A performance standard related to battery energy storage facilities and the requirement of applicants to supply, and assume the costs, of specialized fire safety equipment or other protections , if necessary for such use.
  4. Additional suggested clarifications recommended by planning staff.
  5. A 20 year Conditional Use Permit term, instead of 25 years, to include a one-time automatic extension for five years if the project remains compliant.
  6. A Maximum Project Area of 1,000 acres, instead of 2,000 acres, including a waiver option.
  7. A 2 mile minimum distance from a city, instead of 1.5 miles, including a waiver option.
  8. Consideration and review, if necessary, of impact on surrounding landowners due to the addition of transmission lines to service solar facilities.

The Planning Commission Recommendation

Once land use policies were established, the Planning Commission and county staff drafted zoning regulations, factoring in caution and a desire for moderation,  with the intent of preventing the unincorporated areas from becoming inundated with USSFs. During its Dec. 14, 2021 meeting, the Planning Commission voted to recommend changes to the Johnson County Rural Comprehensive Plan and Johnson County Zoning and Subdivision Regulations in order to regulate Utility-Scale Solar Facilities, with the following development standards.

  • CUP Term: 20 years. That’s a typical planning timeframe in Johnson County’s Rural Comprehensive Plan. Experience shows planners can predict growth 20 years into the future.
  • Maximum project area: 1,000 acres. There are many viable USSF projects that are 1,000 acres or less. Very large solar facilities with several thousands of acres are typically located in arid climates or areas with larger geographic area and lower population than Johnson County.
  • Maximum project extent is four square miles (2,560 acres.) (Waiver available). Planning staff knew it could be difficult for all of a project’s parcels to be contiguous (butting up next to each other) due to the topography of the county and landowner participation. That’s the reason for creating the project extent. It allows flexibility but also maintains control and keeps a project contained.
  • Maximum coverage area: Up to 70% of a project can be covered by solar panels. This allows for the management of stormwater, better vegetative retention, open space and wildlife corridors.
  • Protective buffer: USSFs have to be located at least two miles from a city border (Waiver available).  They also must be two miles from another USSF located in an unincorporated part of the county. As of now, with current city limits, that makes 10,391 acres available for USSFs.
  • Setbacks: Structures have to be at least 50 feet from the project boundary (similar to other existing setback restrictions). This setback can be increased if a project area abuts a non-participating parcel on two more sides, or more than 50 percent of the exterior property lines. Substations and battery energy storage facilities need to be 150 feet from the project boundary. Dwellings shall be at least 250 feet.
  • Screening: Solar panels and equipment need to be screened from roads, residential zoning and existing  homes using things like existing vegetation, planting new trees, decorative fencing or berms.
  • Decommissioning requirements: There is also a plan for decommissioning a USSF. This includes removal of all equipment, stabilizing and reseeding the land, and disposal of materials. This would also include requiring the operator or owner to pay for the decommissioning.

Next Steps

The Planning Commission recommended the proposed solar facilities amendments, with updated directives, during a special Planning Commission meeting on May 10, 2022. This followed a vote by the BOCC during a special meeting on April 4, 2022, which sent the amendments back to the Planning Commission to review these directives.

Another special BOCC meeting regarding the solar facilities amendments will take place on June 6, 2022 in the Third Floor Hearing Room at the Johnson County Administration Building, 111 S. Cherry St. The BOCC will take action on the Planning Commission's recommendations during this meeting.

Public Information

Johnson County has compiled all documents received by both the Johnson County Planning Commission and Board of County Commissioners on this page to make it easier for the public to locate, review and give comment.

Please send comments to [email protected] to become part of the public record, and check back often for updates and new meeting dates.

Johnson County strives to make these documents accessible for people with disabilities. If you experience any difficulty accessing the content included in these documents, please contact [email protected] for assistance.

2022 Information

April

 

Inspection of Published Standards Proposed to be Adopted and Incorporated by Reference

Please note that due to licensing and/or copywrite restrictions, the following published standards are not available for viewing on this web page:

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 855, Standard for the Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems, 2020 Edition; and

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) 9540A Ed. 4-2019, Standard for Test Method for Evaluating Thermal Runway Fire Propagation in Battery Energy Storage Systems.

The above standards are proposed as amendments to, and to become part of, the Utility-Scale and Medium-Scale Solar Facility conditional use permit development and performance standards contained within Article 23 of the Zoning Regulations, and which are also part of a broader discussion including proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan and additional articles within the Zoning Regulations for the purpose of regulating Solar Facilities.

How to View:

Copies of the two proposed standards are available for inspection Monday through Friday between the hours of 8:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M., at the Johnson County Department of Planning, Housing and Community Development, Johnson County Administration Building, Suite 2000, 111 S. Cherry Street, Olathe, Kansas 66061.

Persons desiring further information may contact the Johnson County Department of Planning, Housing and Community Development at (913) 712-2200, Monday – Friday, from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M.

January

2021 Information

July

  • Planning Commission - cancelled
  • Board of County Commissioners - n/a

May

April

March

  • Planning Commission - cancelled
  • Board of County Commissioners

February

  • Planning Commission - n/a
  • Board of County Commissioners - n/a