Solar turns into local hot topic

The much-discussed national controversy surrounding solar farms is now garnering local discussion.

During the Venango County Regional Planning Commission’s meeting earlier this week in Franklin, the new zoning officer for Cherrytree Township introduced himself to the panel and asked for its help in regard to the solar development plan along Route 8 near Titusville.

“There are 16 hot-spot communities for solar in the state; five of them are in Cherrytree Township,” Tim McGrath told the committee, while noting multiple solar developers, including North Carolina-based Cypress Creek Renewables, have looked into developing land in Cherrytree Township.

“In Cherrytree Township, we have the Oil Creek historical area and two headwaters — Prather Creek that flows into French Creek and Cherry Run that flows into the Allegheny River. If things go south, our waterways are gone.”

McGrath said his concern is solar developers seem to look for smaller municipalities with “no protection,” in the form of a solar ordinance, and that also don’t have a lot of resources to fight developers in the court system once they choose, with as little expense as possible, to put up solar farms.

“I’m not against solar, but I want them to follow the law. I look at it from the perspective of protection for the community,” said McGrath, who has been a fire chief and involved with Cherrytree Township for many years.

He asked the commission to share any information with him regarding solar development in Cherrytree Township.

Cherrytree project

A particularly contentious project in Cherrytree Township has been a plan by Cypress Creek to construct a 24-megawatt solar installation composed of five solar array fields on two parcels that total 324 acres.

When Cypress Creek first approached Cherrytree Township about solar development around 2019-2020, the township didn’t have a solar ordinance on the books, and the COVID-19 pandemic kept the township from holding meetings for some time, McGrath said.

By the time the township’s present solar ordinance was on the books, Cypress Creek said it didn’t have to abide by it, according to McGrath.

The developer, he said, argued it should be grandfathered in on the Route 8 development, abiding by a previous solar ordinance the township had hastily approved, since the developer had permission prior to the current ordinance’s approval. The disagreement went to court and Cherrytree Township lost.

During the township’s further discussions with Cypress Creek, McGrath said, the developer had told the township it received permission for the project from Venango County and “used that against” Cherrytree Township as “leverage” to tell the township it had to follow suit and give approval.

To his surprise, McGrath said, he recently discovered the permission from the county that Cypress Creek seemed to be referring to was a conditional approval for land development issued by the Venango County Regional Planning Commission.

Commission members were surprised to hear a conditional approval for land development it had granted Cypress Creek was allegedly being used by the developer to try to compel the township to give approval to the developer’s plans.

Both the commission’s executive director, Hilary Buchanan, and Venango County Commissioner Sam Breene quickly noted municipalities take precedence over the county in any decisions made about zoning.

It also was noted the project was delayed and Cypress Creek didn’t meet the conditions laid out in the first conditional approval for land development it had been granted before the approval eventually expired.

In September, the commission gave conditional approval for land development for the solar installation.

Michael Hooper, of Cypress Creek, said at the September Planning Commission meeting that he doesn’t know the timeline for the project, but the group “generally tries to get going as quickly as possible.”

At this week’s meeting, the commission’s recycling coordinator, Erik Johnson, told McGrath, “If they (Cypress Creek) haven’t met our conditions, they can’t move dirt or they are in violation. They have 45 days to meet our conditions. We will keep you in the loop.”

Seeking an answer

McGrath said his recent attempts to contact Cypress Creek representatives to find out the developer’s timeline for putting in the proposed $25 million solar installation were unsuccessful. He told the commission, “If you have plans (for the solar project), you’ve seen more than we have.”

In an email exchange with the newspaper, Angeli Chandler, director of communications for Cypress Creek Renewables, said, “We have been in touch with the township in recent weeks and we look forward to working together as we build this 24MW solar farm, which, when complete, will produce enough energy to power about 3,000 homes each year with clean renewable energy.”

Chandler offered no response when further questioned by the newspaper as to who Cypress Creek had been in touch with in Cherrytree Township.

During the commission’s meeting, panel member Frank Pankratz said “Cypress Creek wrote the (solar) ordinance for Cranberry Township.”

McGrath replied, “They tried to do that to us, too.”

McGrath’s advice to other municipalities without solar ordinances when approached by solar companies is “refuse to agree to anything. Make a resolution that no applications will be accepted until an ordinance is in place.”

The commission noted it always tells developers to speak with municipality officials when they are looking at a project, and that the commission also sends municipalities information about proposed developments in their municipality.

Buchanan said the commission has held trainings for municipalities about solar through the Penn State Extension, but the trainings have seen “little attendance.”

“I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “We are trying to keep people informed. Solar is an important new industry.”


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