Solar and wind energy development is thriving in Ohio, and most of that development will occur on leased farmland. Programs in the newly enacted federal Inflation Reduction Act might amplify renewable energy development even more. The decision to lease land for wind and solar development is an important one for a farmland owner, and one that remains with a farm for decades. It’s also a very controversial issue in Ohio today, with farmers and community residents lining up on both sides of the controversy. For these reasons, when a landowner receives a “letter of intent” for wind or solar energy development, we recommend taking a careful course of action. Here are a few considerations that might help.
Purpose and legal effect of a letter of intent. Typically, a letter of intent for renewable energy development purposes is not a binding contract, but it might be. The purposes of the letter of intent are usually to provide initial information about a potential solar lease and confirm a landowner’s interest in discussing the possibility of a solar lease. Unless there is compensation or a similar benefit provided to the landowner and the letter states that it’s a binding contract, signing a letter of intent wouldn’t have the legal effect of committing the landowner to a solar lease. But the actual language in the letter of intent would determine its legal effect, and it is possible that the letter would offer a payment and contain terms that bind a landowner to a leasing situation.
Attorney review is critical. To ensure a clear understanding of the legal effect and terms of the letter of intent, a landowner should review the letter with an attorney. An attorney can explain the significance of terms in the letter, which might include an “exclusivity” provision preventing the landowner from negotiating with any other solar developer for a certain period of time, “confidentiality” terms that prohibit a landowner from sharing information about the letter with anyone other than professional advisors, “assignment” terms that allow the other party to assign the rights to another company, and initial details about the proposed project and lease such as location, timeline, and payments. Working through the letter with an attorney won’t require a great deal of time or cost but will remove uncertainties about the legal effect and terms of the letter of intent.
Negotiating an Option and Lease would be the next steps. If a landowner signs a letter of intent, the next steps will be to negotiate an Option and a Lease. It’s typical for a letter of intent to summarize the major terms the developer intends to include in the Option and Lease, which can provide a helpful “heads up” on location, payments and length of the lease. As with the letter of intent, including an attorney in the review and negotiation of the Option and Lease is a necessary practice for a landowner. We also recommend a full consideration of other issues at this point, such as the effect on the farmland, farm business, family, taxes, estate plans, other legal interests, and neighbor relations. Read more in our “Farmland Owner’s Guide to Solar Leasing” and “Farmland Owner’s Solar Leasing Checklist”.
New laws in Ohio might prohibit the development. A new law effective in October of 2021 gives counties in Ohio new powers to restrict or reject wind and solar facilities that are 50 MW or more in size. A county can designate “restricted areas” where large-scale developments cannot locate and can reject a specific project when it’s presented to the county. The new law also allows citizens to organize a referendum on a restricted area designation and submit the designation to a public vote. Smaller facilities under 5-MW are not subject to the new law. Several counties have acted on their new authorities under the law in response to community concerns and opposition to wind and solar facilities. Community opposition and whether a county has or will prohibit large-scale wind and solar development are additional factors landowners should make when considering a letter of intent. Learn more about these new laws in our Energy Law Library.
It's okay to slow it down. A common reaction to receiving a letter of intent is that the landowner must act quickly or could lose the opportunity. Or perhaps the document itself states a deadline for responding. A landowner shouldn’t let those fears prevent a thorough assessment of the letter of intent. If an attorney can’t meet until after the deadline, for example, a landowner should consider contacting the development and advising that the letter is under review but meeting the deadline isn’t possible. That’s a much preferred course of action to signing the letter without a review just to meet an actual or perceived deadline.
For more information about energy leases in Ohio, refer to our Energy Law Library on the Farm Office website at https://farmoffice.osu.edu/our-library/energy-law.
Like the farm fields across Ohio lately, a little dust has been flying down at the Statehouse in Columbus. Our legislators are back to work and considering several bills that could affect agriculture. A few bills aren’t seeing much action, though. Here’s a summary of recent activity and inactivity at the Statehouse.
Newly introduced bills
H.B. 440 and S.B.241 – Agricultural Linked Deposit Program. This pair of bills introduced on September 30, 2021 by Representatives Swearingen (R-Huron) and White (R-Kettering) and Senators Cirino (R-Kirtland) and Rulli (R-Salem) is one of three bills in the “Ohio Gains Initiative” offered in partnership with Ohio Treasurer Robert Sprague. The Initiative proposes three new investment reforms affecting agriculture, health systems, and higher education. The agricultural proposal in H.B. 440 and S.B. 241 would expand the current Ag-LINK loan program that provides interest rate reductions of up to 3% on operating loans. The bill would make the loans available to cooperatives in addition to farm operators and agribusinesses and would also remove the $150,000 cap on Ag-LINK loans. It’s been referred to the House Financial Institutions Committee and the Senate Financial Institutions & Technology Committee.
Bills on the move
H.B. 175 – Deregulate certain ephemeral water features. The bill addresses “ephemeral features”—surface water that flows or pools only in direct response to precipitation but that is not a wetland. Under the proposal, ephemeral features would be exempt from water pollution control programs in Ohio, including the Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification Program, as proposed in the federal 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule now on hold. The bill would also eliminate the certification review fee for ephemeral streams. H.B. 175 passed the House on September 30, 2021, amidst strong opposition. It awaits review before the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
H.B. 397 – Agricultural lease law. A proposal to address termination dates and notice provisions for crop leases received its second hearing before the House Agriculture and Conservation Committee on October 12. H.B. 397 would require a landowner who wants to terminate a crop lease that doesn’t address termination to do so by providing a written notice of termination to the tenant by September 1 of the year the termination would be effective. Discussion at the committee hearing could result in a broadening of the bill to include pasture leases.
S.B. 47 – Overtime pay. The Senate passed this bill on September 22, and it has since been referred to the House Commerce and Labor Committee. The bill exempts certain activities from the requirement for an employer to pay overtime wages. Under the proposal, traveling to and from a worksite would be exempt from overtime. Performing preliminary or postliminary tasks and activities outside of work hours that require insubstantial periods of time, such as checking email or voice mail, would also be exempt. The bill now moves to the House Commerce and Labor Committee.
Bills not moving
Several bills we’ve been watching have not generated continued interest at the Statehouse, including:
- H.B. 95, the Beginning Farmers bill that would provide income tax credits for beginning farmers who attend approved financial management programs and for owners who sell land and agricultural assets to certified beginning farmers. It passed the House in late June but was removed from the agenda when first scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee on September 28, 2021.
- H.B. 30, the bill adding marking and lighting requirements to animal-drawn vehicles, also passed the House in late June but has not seen action since its second hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee on September 22, 2021.
- H.B. 385, which would prohibit municipalities in the Western Basin of Lake Erie from discharging waste into those waters, fine those who do, and revoke NPDES permits for municipalities owning treatment works or sewerage systems within the Western Basin. The bill received one hearing before the House Agriculture and Conservation Committee on September 28.
- H.B. 349, which would place a moratorium on granting permits for a new construction or expansion of a regulated animal feeding facility in the Maumee watershed if the Ohio Department of Agriculture has determined that the phosphorus load in the Maumee River exceeded a specified number. The House Agriculture and Conservation Committee has not scheduled the bill for a hearing since it was referred to the committee on June 16, 2021.
Bills now effective
S.B. 52, the bill addressing large-scale wind and solar facility development in Ohio, became effective on October 11, 2021. The bill allows county commissioners to prohibit wind and solar developments and to establish restricted areas in the county that are off limit to the developments, gives county citizens an opportunity to place a restricted area designation on the ballot, increases local awareness and engagement in review of a proposed facility, and requires decommissioning plans and bonds for approved developments. Learn more about S.B. 52 with our law bulletins and videos on the new laws, available in our energy law library.