County meeting provides updates on solar projects, Grain Belt Express

Anakin Bush/Fulton Sun
Joe Burns stands and speaks to the gathered crowd at Wednesday's meeting about solar energy and Grain Belt Express. Left to right:  Mike Haffner, Jim Schulte, Kent Haden, Travis Fitzwater, Joe Burns, Steven Jeffery, Roger Fischer and Randy Kleindienst.
Anakin Bush/Fulton Sun Joe Burns stands and speaks to the gathered crowd at Wednesday's meeting about solar energy and Grain Belt Express. Left to right: Mike Haffner, Jim Schulte, Kent Haden, Travis Fitzwater, Joe Burns, Steven Jeffery, Roger Fischer and Randy Kleindienst.

Residents from across Callaway County attended a meeting on Wednesday to hear updates from various levels of government about solar energy and Grain Belt Express within the county.

Joe Burns, a member of Mid Missouri Landowners Alliance and an organizer of the meeting, kicked off the meeting by providing an update on recent efforts.

A document at the event details the estimated time the Mid Missouri Landowners Alliance members spent taking action against solar and Grain Belt Express in the past eight months.

An estimated total of 1,600 hours have been accumulated by the group. This time includes legislator meetings, public meetings, researching and obtaining signs and petitions.

The document also breaks down estimated group expenses since May 2022. The group has spent an estimated $8,821. This includes hiring a lawyer, mailing to meetings and producing handouts and other materials.

"...We need your help, we need you to be involved. We need you to use your voice. This is still America, you still have the right to speak up and we're asking you, please donate your time, donate your money, donate whatever you have to give to this cause if this means something to you," Burns said.

The first legislator who spoke at the meeting was Rep. Jim Schulte, R-New Bl0omfield, who introduced Rep. Mike Haffner's bill, House Bill 1052.

"I'm proud to be among this group right now, and working with them," Schulte said.

HB 1052 aims to ensure that solar and wind farms could not use eminent domain to forcefully construct on property.

Haffner, a Republican from Pleasant Hill, said this bill will go to the Agriculture Policy Committee next week. He is the chair of the committee.

"It takes that eminent domain authority away from them. It takes it away from solar panels, it takes it away from wind turbines, but it only takes it away from the site going out. It does not take it away from the electrical corporation attaching back in. We can't attack that," Haffner said.

Haffner also spoke about House Bill 1044. This bill would change how many commissioners are appointed to the Public Service Commission.

"Right now the governor, with the Senate's approval, they can appoint seven commissioners to the Public Service Commission. The last time that was updated was 1949," Haffner said.

HB 1044 would increase the amount of commissioners to 11, one for each congressional district. He added that three of the members would have to be farmers.

Haffner briefly spoke about House Bill 992, which includes a collocation clause.

"...which gives some power to electrical corporations. If they collocate, they can use eminent domain. Our commitment to you is we're going to stay engaged with that. We want these transmission lines, these power lines to be collocated with existing lines, but unfortunately within statute right now...there is no compensation for the farmer, the rancher, the landowner if they collocate and come onto your property," Haffner said.

He encouraged citizens to talk to him about these bills, as he said they can be very complex to understand.

Steven Jeffery, an attorney hired by the alliance, spoke next.

He has more than 35 years of experience in environmental law, according to the Jeffery Law Group's website. From 1987-1993, Jeffery served as the General Counsel for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Jeffery spoke about about the loan application Grain Belt Express filed with the U.S. Department of Energy. He said the DOE will have to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS).

"Under the law, to do an EIS, the Department of Energy is required by law to consider whether or not there is even a purpose or a need for this project... Assuming that there is, then they have to analyze 'Well, are there alternatives to the project," Jeffery said.

In a letter submitted to the DOE, Jeffery asked why these projects could not be constructed underground as an alternative.

The EIS will also examine how it will impact the environment, such as the loss of wildlife habitats.

He said a draft of the EIS is supposed to be available in the fall, when the public will be able to review it and provide comments.

Jeffery also touched upon eminent domain, and some of the legal history related to the topic in Missouri.

After Jeffery, Sen. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, spoke about Senate Bill 549. This bill is identical to House Bill 1065 filed by Rep. Kent Haden, a Mexico Republican.

SB 549 would provide options against solar farms for counties that are not planning and zoning.

The bill would require any person constructing a solar farm to submit an application to the commissions in each county where the solar farm would be located. The county commissions would have to grant a permit prior to any person or organization obtaining a certificate of public convenience or necessity from the Public Service Commission.

SB 549 would also tax solar farms at a rate of 37.5 percent.

Fitzwater's bill has not yet been sent to a committee. He asked for the bill to be sent to the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee, to which he is the vice-chair.

"It's an uphill battle, honestly. Callaway County is being targeted, and it's in large part because we have infrastructure. We have space, we have Ameren close that's building infrastructure that these groups want to tie into, and they want to tie into counties that don't have zoning and planning. So they don't have the rules they have to follow that would prevent maybe some of the stuff we're all concerned about happening, like homes, the American dream being surrounded by panels," Fitzwater said.

He said it is difficult to protect the community, while also ensuring that farmers retain their property rights.

"We're doing what we can, and we want to be a voice for you," Fitzwater said.

Haden spoke about his bill, HB 1065.

Burns said testimony was heard for his bill last week at a public hearing in the House Utilities Committee. He said around 30 people attended the hearing to testify. The hearing lasted six hours.

"They (Utilities Committee) commented about how they had never seen so many people, and I thought to myself there are only 30 of us," Burns said. " it made an impact, can you imagine what 100 people would have done?"

Haden spoke about a previous solar energy bill he sponsored in 2022 that "basically mirrored what the wind legislation we passed four years ago had."

He said there are probably around 100 different solar projects across Missouri.

Haden said every area across the state probably has solar projects, but people just aren't aware about them.

"...they have bids going out on land that, just like here, nobody knows about," he said.

Haden said that during the hearing for HB 1065, people from urban areas asked if this was just a Callaway County problem that could be fixed by zoning.

"They did not realize that a majority of our state is not zoned. Now Callaway may be one of the bigger counties that's not zoned... but the majority of our state is not zoned. They do not understand that," Haden said.

"They are used to dealing with homeowners associations to make rules they want and everything else, so they just wondered why don't you guys just do that and fix your own problem. They don't know what freedom's about either," Schulte said.

Haden said he thinks it will be difficult to get HB 1065 out of committee.

"It'll be 50/50 at best, and if I'm calling it right now I think it's probably 40 to get it passed and 60 to not," he said.

The last speaker was Roger Fischer, Western District Commissioner. Randy Kleindienst, Eastern District Commissioner, was also in attendance. Presiding Commissioner Gary Jungermann was not at the meeting.

The Callaway County Commission was previously presented with a proposed conditional use ordinance and a utility permit application.

The ordinance would provide guidelines and limitations for solar energy facilities in the county, including where they can operate and other rules.

The utility permit was used in Ralls County to slow down the Grain Belt Express, Burns said.

"Guys, time is of the essence," Fischer said. "They're out there, they're coming in and they're getting contracts signed. We're looking for trucks to start rolling in. They start drilling holes and putting pipe into ground, you've gotta start watching for a grandfather clause to show up someplace, no matter what we do down the road."

He said this is a statewide problem, but the state isn't aware of it yet.

Fischer said he doesn't like the idea of infringing on any citizen's property rights.

He added he is in favor of the ordinance and the restrictions it includes.

Fischer spoke about a decommissioning fund. This would go toward the removal of solar panels and solar farms.

"The decommissioning fund is very concerning to me. I think it needs to be something that is viable. It's got to be able to cover full disposal...," Fischer said.

After the legislators spoke, community members at the meeting were able to ask them questions.

Marilyn Smith, a member of Mid Missouri Landowners Alliance, said the meeting was very important to gauge community support.

HB 1065 would require any solar construction "to be at least one thousand linear feet from any church or school or city, town, or village limit of any private residence."

Smith said 1,000 feet isn't a lot, but it does provide some much-needed space. She said solar farms would be on three sides of her church.

HB 1065 also seeks to tax solar farms at a rate of 37.5 percent business tax.

"...which isn't huge, but it's better than nothing," Smith said.

She said she would be happy if all three bills get passed, but there is still more that needs to be done.

"We're looking at the state House to give us some good laws, and we're looking at our community to see how much support we have, and we're looking at our commissioners to stand behind us," Smith said.