This letter was submitted to LebTown. Read LebTown’s submission policy here.
LebTown recently published a letter from Zach Alger, voicing support for the proposed solar industrial site in North Annville Township. His letter raises many of the arguments that I’ve heard in support of this project, so I’d like to respond.
First, the letter starts by stating the plight of farmers in our area, saying “They’ve been struggling to make a living there the last few years and a few do not have younger family members wanting to take over.” I too am sympathetic to the state of the family farm. I find it sad that someone can be paid more to work a spreadsheet—producing paper profits for a big bank—than they can make working the land to produce food. However, this is a question about zoning, not the plight of the farmer. When times are tough, we wouldn’t let farmers mine their land for minerals, open an adult entertainment establishment, or put a shopping mall on their land. According to the PA Department of Community & Economic Development,
Under common law, the right to use one’s property is limited by two companion principles. “So use your own property as not to injure your neighbors” and “no individual has a right to use his property so as to create a nuisance or otherwise harm others.” In addition to these common law principles, private property rights must yield to the municipality’s exercise of its police powers to protect the public health, safety, morals, and welfare.
Furthermore, Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment states that,
The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.
As strongly as we feel for the property rights of the nine families who have opted into the Lebanon Solar plan, we should feel equally sympathetic to the 58 homeowners who have homes within 100 feet of the proposed development. Nearly all of these homes will have 6’ chain link fence with barbed wire strung behind their backyards (or in some cases, on all three sides of their property)—violating both the common law principle of “use your property…as to not injure your neighbors” as well as our Constitutionally-protected rights to “…the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment.” These homeowners will see significant impact to their property values. Is it right for a landowner to profit at the expense of their neighbors?
Secondly, Mr. Alger’s letter states that a solar industrial site would be preferable to suburban sprawl, warehouses, and pipelines. Perhaps so, but this is a fallacy known as the “appeal to worse” argument. By this logic, we can’t ever argue with anything, because there’s always some worse alternative that could be imagined. And while Alger is correct that developers may put pressure on Townships to change their zoning laws, North Annville’s zoning ordinances currently do not allow anyone to place a warehouse or subdivision on agriculturally-zoned land—and if they tried to change it, we’d be fighting that as well. We can take some comfort that our municipalities are supposed to craft zoning ordinances that implement our regional Comprehensive Plan—which provides a thoughtful and orderly approach to growth and development. We do not have to make a choice between solar or a subdivision.
Third, Mr. Alger’s letter is inaccurate when he says, “Even Farmland Preservation trusts can be defeated by unscrupulous developers willing to spend big bucks to defeat them. Several developments have already been built in Lebanon county on previously preserved farmland.” We checked today with representatives of the Lebanon County Agricultural Land Preservation Program who confirmed that farm preservation is permanent, and they’re not aware of any developments in the county that have taken place on preserved farmland. (Editor’s Note: See update note here.)
Finally, Mr. Alger raises a very good question when he asks, “If we all say ‘not in my backyard’ to things we need where will the things we need go?” Well, there are plenty of options. Pennsylvania has more abandoned mines than any state in the country (many are former surface strip mines), and they’d be great sites for solar. Additionally, there are 51 counties in Pennsylvania with a lower population density than Lebanon County, which would make many of them better-suited for solar sites. I’d encourage anyone to look at an aerial view of other solar sites in Pennsylvania. You’ll see that they are responsibly built, with very few homes near them—and sometimes surrounded by forests which protect the view. This is not the case with the Lebanon Solar proposal, which is extreme in its scale and proximity to residential areas.
The good news is that there is ample land in Pennsylvania that is well-suited for solar development—it’s just not in North Annville Township.