Planning Commission chair says more work is needed on flooding concerns related to solar project; he urges North … – Lawrence Journal-World

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photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

High voltage electric transmission lines run through a farm field near the site of the proposed Kansas Sky Energy Center. Developers of the solar project say the presence of the lines is one of the reasons the site would work well for the project.

UPDATED: 9:20 P.M. APRIL 9, 2024

When it comes to ensuring that a proposed 1,100-acre solar farm in Grant Township doesn’t produce stormwater flooding for neighboring North Lawrence, a key regulator of the project said some work has been left undone.

Gary Rexroad, chair of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission, was one of four planning commissioners in December who voted to recommend the project for County Commission approval. But this week he said that recommendation is highly contingent on the developers doing more to show that the project won’t worsen flooding in North Lawrence or the surrounding area.

“If the stormwater plan comes back and in any way represents risks to North Lawrence, or anywhere, that is a hard stop,” Rexroad said. “That is my understanding. It is a hard stop at that time.”

In an interview with the Journal-World, Rexroad said the Planning Commission at its key December meeting had only “light discussion” of potential stormwater impacts created by the approximately 8 million square feet of solar panels that would be part of the $234 million Kansas Sky Energy Center project.

photo by: Kansas Sky Energy application

The type and model of solar panel planned for the Kansas Sky Energy Center are shown.

Rexroad also told the Journal-World that the Planning Commission particularly did not discuss the unique situation the City of Lawrence finds itself in with the project. Even though the Kansas Sky Energy Center would be located in the unincorporated portions of Douglas County, infrastructure owned and maintained by the City of Lawrence might be the most at risk of failure as a result of the project.

That’s because the proposed site of the solar project — farm fields generally west and south of the U.S. Highway 24/59 intersection, also known as Midland Junction — has a unique drainage characteristic. Rainwater that falls on that site is generally unable to flow directly into the nearby Kansas River. A levee along the Kansas River prevents the water from flowing into the river. Instead, stormwater that can’t be absorbed by the ground must be routed through pipes and pumps owned by the City of Lawrence in North Lawrence.

North Lawrence residents and others have expressed concern that the unique drainage situation is not being fully respected, and are worried that the city’s infrastructure will become overwhelmed and flooding will increase in North Lawrence following the completion of the solar project.

Rexroad said the unique role city infrastructure might play in this project wasn’t part of the Planning Commission’s deliberations in December.

“That was not part of the conversation,” he said.

While planning commissioners didn’t dive into the issue of whether the City of Lawrence’s infrastructure would be at risk from the project, the topic did come up from others at the meeting. Both public commenters and County Engineer Chad Voigt talked about the role North Lawrence infrastructure plays in handling stormwater from the surrounding rural area. Voigt specifically mentioned a pump station at Second and Lyon streets that is critical to pumping water out of North Lawrence and through the Kansas River levee.

“If that is overloaded, then we are flooding everybody,” Voigt said, saying that is an example of why the stormwater review for the solar project is a “serious issue.” 

That same 2005 drainage study had as its top recommendation the construction of an $11 million pump north of North Lawrence that would relieve pressure from existing pumps and pipes in North Lawrence. That pump has never been built. As the Journal-World reported on Sunday, the county has not reached out to the city for feedback on how the solar project might impact the city’s stormwater system, and whether that pump should now be built.

Rexroad, who was part of an ad hoc committee that wrote the county’s regulations for solar projects, said he now thinks those regulations might need to be amended to better account for these situations.

“This makes me think a text amendment to the regulations is in order so that to include a requirement that where a county project has potential impacts across city limit lines — whatever city it is — that they also get approval from that municipality’s engineering group,” Rexroad said.

The regulations do not require any such city review today, and any change to the regulations would not impact the Kansas Sky Energy Center project. But Rexroad said that doesn’t mean that county officials can’t ask for the city’s feedback now, even though the regulations don’t require it. He said his advice to county commissioners — who are scheduled to take a key vote on the project at a special Saturday morning meeting — would be to create a process that allows North Lawrence stakeholders to be involved in the creation of the final stormwater plan for the solar project.

“If I were a county commissioner — and thank God I’m not — one of the things I would say coming out of that (Saturday meeting) is that I want to ensure that North Lawrence’s concerns are reflected and I want them to sign off or give input to a stormwater plan that (the county) is going to approve,” Rexroad said. “I absolutely would do that.”

Whether such a process will materialize is unclear. Douglas County commissioners will meet at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Douglas County Public Works building, 3755 E. 25th St., to potentially approve a conditional use permit for the solar project. But as the Journal-World reported Sunday, county commissioners won’t have the benefit of a final stormwater plan for the project, and key parts of the preliminary stormwater plan have been rejected by the county’s engineer. That means the key stormwater components of the project will have to be presented to the County Commission at a later date, if the project receives approval on Saturday.

Also unclear is whether Lawrence City Hall officials are interested in weighing in on the project. Lawrence Mayor Bart Littlejohn told the Journal-World on Tuesday that now is not the right time for the city to make comments about the solar project.

“I don’t think we are at that part of the process yet,” Littlejohn said. “I think right now it is still in the county’s court.”

For one thing, Littlejohn said the city hasn’t been given enough information about the project to offer high-quality comments regarding its potential impact to the city.

“They haven’t reached out to us and we haven’t had that exchange of information in a formal way,” Littlejohn said of the county.

For the county’s part, officials who are reviewing the project said it hasn’t been necessary to reach out to city officials because they are confident the solar project is going to be designed in a way to capture its stormwater on site so that additional amounts of stormwater won’t be flowing through North Lawrence. If that is the case, then the city’s infrastructure won’t be under any new or additional strain.

But residents of North Lawrence say that only works if the county can accurately predict how much stormwater runoff the solar project will produce. North Lawrence leaders have been critical of the county’s decision to not use a stormwater computer program recommended by the U.S. Department of Energy to calculate such solar project impacts.

One of the managers of that computer model told the Journal-World in Sunday’s article that the county should use the calculator, as it would be helpful in determining how best practices could be employed to control stormwater runoff at the site. The manager, Brian Ross of the Great Plains Institute, said it is quite possible the model would show that with proper design the solar project could reduce the risk of flooding in North Lawrence. That’s because the current farm fields at the site likely create large amounts of runoff that are reaching North Lawrence. With certain design elements, the solar project might be able to capture that runoff before it reaches the city, he said.

photo by: Kansas Sky Energy application

The boundaries of the Kansas Sky Energy project are shown. Also shown are soil types in the project. Areas shown in red are soils that are rated to have high stormwater runoff potential.

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