Highlighting a continuing trend in opposition to solar energy development across the state, the Ohio Power Siting Board has for the first time denied the application of a large-scale solar energy project. After a string of 34 OPSB-approved projects since 2018, the Birch Solar 1 project became the board's first denial when the OPSB determined the project would not serve the public interest.
The proposed project. The Birch Solar application proposed a 300 MW facility in Allen and Auglaize counties with solar panels on 1,410 acres and a total project area of 2,345 acres. Of the total, 2,132 acres are currently in agricultural use. The project would also include 22.5 miles of gravel access roads, an operations and maintenance building, underground and aboveground electric collection lines, meteorological towers, weather stations, inverters and transformers, a collector substation, a point of interconnection switchyard, and a 345-kilovolt generation interconnection electric transmission line. A six-foot cedar post perimeter fence would secure the project, evergreen fencing would limit impacts to neighboring viewsheds, and solar panels would be setback a minimum of 300 feet from adjacent non-participating residences and roadways.
OPSB’s review. The OPSB had the duty of reviewing the project application to determine whether it satisfied the legal criteria in Ohio Revised Code 4906.10(A) for siting a major utility in Ohio. For a solar project, the criteria includes parts (A)(2) through (8):
- The nature of the probable environmental impact;
- That the facility represents the minimum adverse environmental impact, considering the state of available technology and the nature and economics of the various alternatives, and other pertinent considerations;
- That the facility is consistent with regional plans for expansion of the electric power grid of the electric systems serving this state and interconnected utility systems and that the facility will serve the interests of electric system economy and reliability;
- That the facility will comply with Chapters 3704., 3734., and 6111. of the Revised Code and all rules and standards adopted under those chapters and under section 4561.32 of the Revised Code;
- That the facility will serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity;
- What its impact will be on the viability as agricultural land of any land in an existing agricultural district established under Chapter 929. of the Revised Code that is located within the site and alternative site;
- That the facility incorporates maximum feasible water conservation practices as determined by the board, considering available technology and the nature and economics of the various alternatives.
The “public interest” factor and public opposition. OPSB focused most of its analysis of the Birch Solar application on part (A)(6), that the facility “will serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” The board explained that the question of whether an application serves the public interest “must be examined through a broad lens and in consideration of impacts, local and otherwise, from the Project.” The OPSB acknowledged that there can be potential public benefits to a proposed solar facility such as energy generation, economic benefits from employment and tax revenues, air quality and climate improvements, protecting landowner rights, and preserving agricultural land use. But the board stated that it must weigh a project’s benefits against its impacts, especially impacts to those living near it. To do so, the board reviewed the application, evidence, and comments on Birch Solar and identified a primary concern: uniform and consistent public opposition to the project.
The two counties and four townships where Birch Solar would locate all opposed the project. Acting under new legal authority granted by Ohio’s legislature last year, Auglaize County has restricted large-scale solar development in all incorporated parts of the county and Allen County has established most of the county as restricted from solar development. The Birch Solar application is unaffected by the designations since it was in process and grandfathered in before the new law, but OPSB noted that had the new law been in place, the county restrictions would have prohibited the project.
OPSB also reviewed evidence submitted by Allen County officials stating that there would be 1,278 residences, four schools, and six churches within one mile of Birch Solar’s project area, and that the residents shared concerns about the project’s lack of dedicated local power; its impact on land use, property values, drinking water, groundwater, drainage, and roadways; its decommissioning plan; and negotiations on distributing “payment in lieu of taxes” revenue to local governments.
Of the hundreds of public comments submitted on the Birch Solar application, OPSB determined that approximately 80% of the comments were in opposition to the project and that opposition reasons were similar to those raised by the local governments. Birch Solar argued that it had agreed to 40 stipulated conditions that would address opposition concerns and had offered to make “good neighbor” payments of $10--$50,000 and property value adjustments to adjacent landowners. Even so, the OPSB concluded that Birch Solar would not serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity requirement because of “unanimous and consistent opposition to the Project by the government entities whose constituents are impacted by the Project.”
What’s next? The battle may not be over. Birch Solar has the right to request a rehearing and reconsideration of its application within 30 days of the OPSB decision. For now, the board’s denial of the project might invigorate opposition groups that have formed in areas where projects are proposed. But note that on the same day OPSB denied Birch Solar, it approved Pleasant Prairie Solar in Franklin County, a 250 MW facility with a 2,400 acre project area and Harvey Solar, a 350 MW project of 2,630 acres in Licking County. And 15 more projects totaling 3,266 MW are currently pending before the OPSB. Whether local opposition will prohibit any of those projects is an issue we’ll be watching.
Read more about the Birch Solar project in the OPSB case docket at https://opsb.ohio.gov/cases/20-1605-el-bgn.
In August, the Secretary of the Interior announced that the Trump Administration would be making revisions to the way the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is carried out under federal regulations. The move was made in part to further the Administration’s goal to “ease the regulatory burden” on citizens. The revised regulations apply to sections 4 and 7 of the ESA, which means they make changes to how species are listed as endangered, how critical habitat for species is determined, how threatened species are treated, and how the different federal agencies cooperate to carry out the ESA.
Revision of endangered, threatened, and critical habitat protections
The changes to how the ESA is carried out were made in three rulemakings published on August 27, 2019. One of the rules, available here, is meant to increase cooperation between federal agencies when carrying out the ESA (this rule is set to become effective on October 28). Changes made by the other two rules, available here, and here, are much more controversial because they have a great impact on how endangered and threatened species and their habitats are treated under federal regulations. The new rules went into effect on September 26, 2019. We discuss some of the biggest modifications below.
First, the rules change the term “physical or biological features” to “physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species.” This change will likely diminish the number of natural features and areas that will be protected, since only those deemed essential to an endangered species will be protected. Similarly, the new rules give the federal government more leeway to determine when habitat is not critical habitat for species, which may result in less habitat being protected under the new iteration of the rules.
In yet another change, the new rules separate the discussion of “threatened” and “endangered” species within the regulatory text. Due to this uncoupling, some read the new version of the rule as stripping threatened species of protections they enjoyed when they were more closely related to endangered species. The new edition of the rules instead includes factors for determining whether a species can be listed as threatened, such as whether it is likely the species will become endangered in the “foreseeable future,” which will be determined on a case by case basis. Critics of the new rules believe that this language will give the government the discretion to overlook the effects of climate change on a species, which could play out over a period of time longer than the “foreseeable future.” Along the same lines, the rules also make it harder to ban certain activities in order to protect threatened species.
The rules weaken the ESA by allowing the federal government to take into account the actions of states, other nations, and local jurisdictions when listing and delisting species. In other words, if the species is being protected on another level of government or by another country, the U.S. government may be less inclined to protect the species; either by choosing not to list the species, or by removing its threatened or endangered status. Importantly, the new rules also allow “commercial information,” not just scientific information, to be considered when making a decision. Under the old rules, agencies were not allowed to consider the economic impacts of listing or delisting a species. On the whole, the rules seem to give the federal government a lot more discretion to determine that species or habitats should not be protected.
On September 25, 2019, the day before the new rules became effective, the attorneys general from 17 states, including Ohio’s neighbors Michigan and Pennsylvania, sued the Trump Administration in federal court over the changes to the rules. You can find the complaint here. The states assert that the rulemaking violates several federal statutes, including the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs federal administrative agencies. The states further claim that the weakening of protections for endangered and threatened species and their habitats will cause harm to their natural resources, harm to their citizens through environmental degradation, take away the current and future economic benefits of protected species, and increase costs for state governments.
Amidst all the rule changes and lawsuits, members of Congress have been working on their own potential changes to the ESA. Recently, the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of congress members from all around the country who are concerned with land use and resource rights, among other causes, introduced nineteen bills meant to “modernize” the ESA. If you’re interested in the specifics of each bill, they are listed on the Caucus’ website, here. Overall, the bills focus on fixing the ESA by implementing “defined recovery goals” for species, relying on “standardized…publically available” science, and allowing more involvement from states and stakeholders on endangered species decisions.
With action taking place on the administrative, legislative, and judicial levels of the federal government, the way the ESA is written and interpreted seems to be up in the air at present. We will be sure to update the Ag Law Blog with any developments.
Court has agreed to review appellate decision to close winery
A controversial split decision on agricultural zoning from the Fifth District Court of Appealswill go before the Ohio Supreme Court. The court has agreed to review Terry v. Sperry, 2010-Ohio-1299 (March 23, 2010), an appellate decision that endorsed a township's desire to close down a winery in an exurban residential area. The court agreed with the township's assertion that Myrrdin Winery could not utilize Ohio's "agricultural exemption" from township zoning authority because the winery imported more grapes than it grows on the premises and thus does not meet the statute's definition of "agriculture." Because the winery did not qualify as "agriculture," the court held that the township could enjoin its operation. We disagree with the court's reliance on the definition of "agriculture" because the statute also includes specific exemption language for wineries that bypasses the agriculture definition. See our earlier post, Ohio court allows township to use zoning to prohibit winery.
The Supreme Court's decision to review the case should result in much needed clarification of township zoning authority over wineries, a recurring issue in Ohio. With more and more wineries developing in Ohio, many will be anxious for the Supreme's Court's interpretation of the statute. The court should reach a decision in early 2011.
Court says winery must grow more grapes to be defined as "agriculture."
In a split decision, the Seventh Distict Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of a township in Mahoning County that wants to close down a small winery. Milton Township claims that the winery violates township zoning regulations because it is located in a residential zoning district and does not qualify for the "agricultural exemption" from local zoning. The court of common pleas and the majority on the appeals court agreed with the township, but a strong dissent by Court of Appeals Judge DeGenaro challenges the courts' rulings and illustrates the need for clarity in Ohio's rural zoning laws.
Myrddin Winery is a family owned business located on Lake Milton in Milton Township, on property that also contains a residence. A free standing addition serves as the winery, and the property also has a vineyard containing 20 grape vines, with 12 vines producing grapes for harvest. The Sperry family uses their grapes for wine, and must also import grapes and grape juices for their wine production--5% of their wine derives from their grape vines. They make and bottle the wine on the premises. Customers visit the winery to taste and purchase the wine and food items.
Before opening in 2005, the Sperry family asked the township zoning inspector if the township required any permits for the winery. The zoning inspector advised that the family could begin operations immediately because the township did not require any permits. In 2008, however, the township changed its opinion and notified the Sperrys that they were in violation of the township zoning resolution. The township filed a complaint and requested the court to issue an injunction that would prohibit continued operation of the winery.
Two issues were before the Mahoning County trial court upon hearing the Myrddin Winery case: 1) whether a winery is "agriculture" for purposes of the agricultural exemption in Ohio zoning law, and 2) whether Ohio zoning law exempts wineries from local zoning regulation. The trial court answered both questions in the negative. The Sperry family appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals.
The court of appeals examined the Ohio Revised Code's agricultural exemption from township zoning authority, but focused its decision on the statute's definition of "agriculture" in O.R.C. 519.01, which states:
- "As used in section 519.02 to 519.25 of the Revised Code, 'agriculture' includes farming; ranching; aquaculture; apiculture; horticulture; viticulture; animal husbandry, * * *; poultry husbandry * * *; dairy production; the production of field crops, tobacco, fruits, vegetables, nursery stock, ornamental shrubs, ornamental trees, flowers, sod, or mushrooms; timber; pasturage; any combination of the foregoing; the processing, drying, storage, and marketing of agricultural products when those activities are conducted in conjunction with, but are secondary to, such husbandry or production." (Emphasis added.)
As Judge DeGenaro points out in the dissent, the court should have relied on the actual agricultural exemption language contained in R.C. 519.21(A), which provides:
- "Except as otherwise provided in division (B) of this section, sections 519.02 to 519.25 of the Revised Code confer no power on any township zoning commission, board of township trustees, or board of zoning appeals to prohibit the use of any land for agricultural purposes or the construction or use of buildings or structures incident to the use for agricultural purposes of the land on which such buildings or structures are located, including buildings or structures that are used primarily for vinting and selling wine and that are located on land any part of which is used for viticulture, and no zoning certificate shall be required for any such building or structure." (Emphasis added.)
I agree with the dissent's interpretation of the statute, which is that a township may not prohibit the use of buildings or structures that are used primarily for vinting and selling wine and that are located on land used for viticulture, which is the growing of grapes for wine. Under this interpretation, Myrddin Winery could not be prohibited by way of zoning regulation. However, the majority chose to read R.C. 519.21(A) to require that "any buildings or structures used primarily for vinting and selling wine" must also fit within the definition of "agriculture" in R.C. 519.01. That definition includes "viticulture" and the processing and marketing of agricultural products, but only if processing and marketing of products is "secondary to" production. Because Myrddin Winery was importing more grapes and grape juice for its wine than it was growing on the property, the court concluded that the processing and marketing of the wine was not secondary to production, but was the primary use of the property. Thus, the agricultural exemption from zoning regulation would not apply and the township could prohibit the winery.
In short, the court's ruling requires a winery to ensure that production of grapes is the primary use of the property and any processing and marketing of wine is the secondary use of the property. Otherwise, local zoning can prohibit a winery. This outcome is especially problematic for beginning operations, because grape vines require many years of cultivation prior to successful harvest for wine production. It also raises challenges for the winery landowner who must prove whether the grapes or the wine are the "primary" use of the property. The specific exemption for wineries in 519.21(A) avoids these complications.
The Myrddin Winery case is one example of the confusion surrounding Ohio's agricultural exemption from township and county zoning authority, and the court's ruling strays too far from the intent of the law--to ensure that agricultural activities can persist outside of municpal areas. The Sperry family has a strong basis for appealing the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court and seeking final clarification of the winery provision in the agricultural exemption. But the Ohio legislature could alleviate the problem for landowners like the Sperry family, as well as townships and counties, by providing statutory clarification to the agricultural exemption. Cases like the Myrddin winery case pervade the state and continuously raise the issue of which agricultural activities can and cannot be regulated by zoning. With growing interests in agriculture and with state and federal policies that promote new types of agricultural production, direct marketing, and on-site processing by agricultural producers, Ohio will continue to experience conflicts between agriculture and local zoning regulation. It's time for the legislature to simplify and clarify the relationship between agricultural land uses and local zoning authority.
The Myrddin Winery case is Terry v. Sperry, 2010-Ohio-1299 (March 23, 2010), and is available here.
Can Ohio townships use their zoning authority to regulate outdoor signs on agricultural property? This is a question I've received many times. I can now refer townships to legal guidance provided by the Ohio Attorney General in an opinion issued October 20, 2009 (OAG 2009-041). The OAG opinion walks us through an analysis of the persistently problematic Ohio Revised Code section 519.21, commonly referred to as the 'agricultural zoning exemption,' which states that townships may not use their zoning authority "to prohibit the use of any land for agricultural purposes or the construction or use of buildings or structures incident to the use for agricultural purposes of the land on which such buildings or structures are located," with a few exceptions.
The OAG opinion provides the following explanation of how the agricultural exemption applies to an outdoor sign on agricultural property:
"1. Pursuant to R.C. 519.21(A), officials of a township that has not adopted a limited home rule government under R.C. Chapter 504 may not regulate the location, height,bulk, or size of a fee-standing outdoor sign that is located on a lot greater than five acres and deemed to be a structure when the use of the sign relates directly and immediately to the use for agricultural purposes of the lot on which the sign is located.
2. The use of a free-standing outdoor sign is directly and immediately related to the use for agricultural purposes of the lot on which the sign is located when the sign advertises the sale of agricultural products derived from the lot on which the sign is located.
3. The use of a free-standing outdoor sign is not directly and immediately related to the use for agricultural purposes of the lot on which the sign is located when the sign advertises the sale of (1) agricultural products not derived from the lot on which the sign is located or (2) things other than agricultural products.
4. Township officials may consider any information or facts they deem necessary and relevant in order to determine in a reasonable manner whether the use of a free-standing outdoor sign is directly and immediately related to the use for agricultural purposes of the lot on which the sign is located or an attempt to promote an activity that is not conducted in conjunction with, and secondary to, the production of the agricultural products derived from the lot on which the sign is located."
Note that the opinion pertains only to townships that have not adopted a limited home rule form of government--most of our townships have not taken the action necessary to adopt limited home rule powers. The opinion also notes that the 'farm market exception' may provide townships with limited authority to regulate outdoor signs, and that a different outcome could result for regulation of lots less than five acres in a subdivision setting.
The OAG's guidance is consistent with the history of the agricultural exemption and the many court cases that have interpreted the law. When the Ohio legislature gave townships zoning authority over 50 years ago, it tried to ensure that townships would not "zone out" all agricultural land uses in rural areas. The legislature's foresight on the issue of agricultural land use was remarkable, but their statutory language has yielded uncertainty and confusion. The OAG's opinion attempts to clarify some of that language, but the opinion forces townships into a careful analysis of each individual situation that may prove difficult and problematic for zoning officials.
The opinion itself recognizes the challenges posed by a "mixed use" situation, where the sign includes multiple products or partial products--some that derive from the property and others that do not, or promotes an activity related to the property's agricultural use. The Attorney General doesn't resolve this problem, but defers to the townships on these types of situations. The opinion states that when addressing these situations, township officials may consider "any information or facts they deem necessary and relevant in order to determine in a reasonable manner whether the use of an advertising device is drectly and immediately related to the use for agricultural purposes of the lot on which the device is located," or conversely is an "attempt to promote an activity that is not conducted in conjunction with and secondary to the production of the agricultural prouducts derived from the lot." Once again, township zoning officials may find themselves in a state of uncertainty over how or whether to regulate a land use on an agricultural property.
Read OAG opinion 2009-041 at http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Legal/Opinions.
If you heard a collective sigh of relief around Ohio on Thursday, it was likely coming from Ohio townships after learning the outcome of the long-awaited “Phantom Fireworks” court case. The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously agreed that Ohio townships may rely on countywide comprehensive land use plans as a basis for township zoning, rather than preparing individual township comprehensive plans. B.J. Alan Co. v. Congress Twp. Bd. of Zoning Appeals, Slip Opinion No. 2009-Ohio-5863 (Nov. 12, 2009).
I tend to like the pragmatic opinions authored by Justice Pfeifer, and this case is no exception. The decision answers with brevity the question of whether a township must prepare its own comprehensive land use plan in order to comply with Ohio zoning law. Examining the language of Ohio Revised Code 519.02, which grants townships the authority to utilize zoning “in accordance with a comprehensive plan,” the court determined that the statute does not require each township to develop its own comprehensive plan. Such an interpretation would be reading additional language into 519.02, said the court, and “the law requires only that a zoning resolution be ‘in accordance with a comprehensive plan.’” A countywide comprehensive plan is sufficient, and “accounts for the interrelationship of communities and marshals resources and expertise.”
Had the court reached a different conclusion, it would have invalidated hundreds of Ohio township zoning resolutions that are based on county land use plans. This was the hope of the B.J. Alan Company, which brought the case as a challenge to a zoning decision by Congress Township in Wayne County. The township denied the company’s request for a use variance to allow it to construct a Phantom Fireworks store on land zoned for agricultural use. When the case went to the court of appeals, that court agreed with the company’s argument that Congress Township’s zoning resolution was invalid according to ORC 519.02 because it was not based on a township comprehensive plan.
The controversial nature of the case led to parties lining up in interesting partnerships on both sides of the appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court. Backing the township were the Ohio Township Association, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the Wayne County Farm Bureau and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys’ Association. On the opposite side in support of B.J. Alan Company’s appeal were the Ohio Home Builders’ Association, American Planning Association and Ohio Planning Conference.
The Supreme Court referred the case back to the court of appeals to resolve the question of whether Congress Township’s zoning is indeed “in accordance with” the Wayne County comprehensive plan. The court did examine the county plan, and held that the plan itself is a valid comprehensive plan for purposes of ORC 519.02. Sidestepping the fact that Ohio law does not clearly define a “comprehensive plan,” the court concluded that the Wayne County plan “presents a thorough study of the region and sets forth comprehensive land-use goals for the County.”
For now, townships need not panic about finding the time and funds to develop township comprehensive plans. Townships may continue to enforce their zoning resolutions based on county plans. Unknown to us is whether B.J. Alan Company will need to find a new piece of land for its Phantom Fireworks store—that decision is now in the hands of the appellate court.
Does the law require a minimum amount of acreage for a landowner to engage in agricultural activities like raising crops, livestock or horses in Ohio? This is a common question I receive in the Farm Office. The answer is usually a simple "no," but the explanation is not exactly simple.
One situation where there could be a legal minimum acreage requirement is if land is within a municipality. Because cities, towns and villages have greater zoning authority than counties and townships in Ohio, they can prohibit agriculture altogether or establish regulations for agricultural activities such as minimum acreage requirements.
That's not the case when counties and townships have zoning. Their zoning regulations are subject to an Ohio law that largely exempts agricultural land uses from zoning--the "agricultural exemption." Unless a parcel is in what I call a "subddivision situation," county and township zoning can't prohibit or regulate agricultural land uses on that parcel. Within a platted residential subdivision or where there are 15 or more contiguous subdivided lots established outside of the platting process, county and township could use zoning to regulate certain agricultural activities on lots that are less than five acres. For example, zoning could regulate lots under one acre and could regulate animal husbandry activities, set back lines, and building sizes on lots between one and five acres.
But if a lot in a subdivision situation is over five acres, the agricultural exemption applies and a county or township can't regulate or prohibit agricultural activities on the lot. This means county or township zoning can't require a landowner to have at least two acres to raise cattle or horses, for instance, or to have at least five acres to plant an agricultural row crop. These types of requirements would be an attempt to regulate agriculture, and Ohio's agricultural exemption from zoning simply doesn't allow counties and townships to do so in those situations.
Note that Ohio's Current Agricultural Use Valuation (CAUV) law does establish a minimum acreage. CAUV is the program that allows qualifying property to be valued and taxed as agricultural rather than for its fair market value. Parcels must be either at least ten acres in size or produce an average annual gross income of $2500 from agriculture. The land must be dedicated to "commercial" agricultural activity to qualify for CAUV. Zoning regulations and CAUV eligibility are not related to one another but they likely lead to confusion on the issue of minimum acreage for agriculture.
For more on agriculture and zoning, see our Zoning Law shelf on theFarm Office Ag Law Library, here.