The Kewanee resident holding up a planned 123-acre solar farm on the western city limits says heâ€™s fighting the project not because of its encroachment to his property, but because he wants to protect the city from an imminent Chinese attack on the U.S. power grid.
Kewanee Planning Commission members postponed the approval of a special-use permit for the project at last monthâ€™s hearing after resident Robert Turner, whose property abuts a solar farm being developed by California-based Sunpin Solar, claimed the company had not lived up to its deal to mitigate the effect of the solar panels on his property.
Turner claims the company had agreed to plant trees around the property he purchased three years ago â€“ bought around the time the company was negotiating a deal with the Kewanee Economic Development Corporation over the purchase of the solar farm land. The land sits on the KEDCâ€™s Leninger Industrial Park through an option lease agreement that was signed in 2019.
The Lininger site would be host to an approximate 25 megawatt solar system with an estimated annual production of up to 46,100 megawatt-hours. The total annual production could power 3,900 homes annually.
Sunpinâ€™s alleged deal with Turner was supposed to serve as a buffer between the solar farm and the residential property.
“I donâ€™t want to live in the middle of it, thatâ€™s what the objection is,” he told commissioners at Augustâ€™s online meeting.
The 80-year-old Turner complained to commissioners that Sunpin officials hadnâ€™t dealt with him fairly and that the two sides had yet to reach an agreement. He also complained that the KEDC had not treated him fairly or taken his concerns seriously, and by keeping the deal a secret, he hadnâ€™t been aware of the planned solar farm when he purchased his property.
Sunpin business development manager Jamie Boyd confirmed that the company initially had offered $15,000 to Turner for the landscaping work, but told planning commissioner members in the Zoom meeting that the company was prepared to make Turner a final $25,000 for the tree-planting work.
Commissioners tabled the matter until its Sept. 25 meeting, awaiting the companyâ€™s final offer to Turner.
Change in tune
But Turner says now he wonâ€™t accept the offer â€” or any offer â€” telling the Star Courier that his demand from Sunpin has gone up to $220,000 to purchase the property entirely (plus moving expenses) and that he never really cared whether the company provided a barrier of trees around his property.
“I want to do whatâ€™s right for the people of Kewanee and the citizens of the United States,” he said in a phone interview. “I think we have a violation of national security going on. Iâ€™m not worried about the surroundings here, thatâ€™s crap.”
Instead, he is calling on the city to reject Sunpinâ€™s special-use permit request until next year because he claims the components within the proposed solar farm could be used by the Chinese government to unleash an attack on the countryâ€™s power grid. He has provided city leaders information packets he says prove his theories.
“Last night one of my sources told me that serious decisions are being made by government agencies between now and the election, dealing with the national grid threat,” he said in a followup email. “From this information, I strongly suggest that the city council wait until after January 2021 to vote on the Sunpin matter, to pass a vote any sooner it is most likely that the â€˜powers to beâ€™ could loose their entire investments.”
Tuners claims “connections” to officials in China that were made through the course of his professional career.
Kewanee Mayor Gary Moore is disputing Turnerâ€™s conspiratorial claims and what he says are racist characterizations in his arguments that have offended Sunpin company officials.
“The were very offended by his racially motivated attacks,” he said.
In fact, despite Sunpinâ€™s project being tabled to September, company officials have asked to skip the Sept. 24 meeting and to have their item placed on Octoberâ€™s agenda instead.
In the interim, Moore has set up a meeting with Sunpin officials to ameliorate hard feelings over Turnerâ€™s attacks and to reaffirm the cityâ€™s commitment to the project, which is expected to produce additional revenue to the city, though no specific revenue projections have yet been shared publicly.
The Planning Commissionâ€™s final recommendation would still need city council approval.
“They donâ€™t need anything from him,” the mayor said, noting that the offer of landscaping was beyond what was required of Sunpin and a sign they were trying to be good neighbors.
Despite Turnerâ€™s bluster, “Weâ€™re still planning to move forward,” Moore said.
Keith Edwards, Kewaneeâ€™s director of community development, who doesnâ€™t have a vote in the special-use approval process but received an information packet from Turner, said he is dumbstruck over the residetâ€™s efforts to stymy the deal with Sunpin.
“The city is absolutely welcoming them with open arms,” he said. “We support the whole concept.”
Edwards said itâ€™s ironic that zoning for Leninger Industrial Park, where the solar panels will be moored underground to withstand 110 mph winds, actually allows for more-intrusive industry to build there. He said Sunpin is not obligated to provide any kind of barrier, and that a factory would be exempted from special-use requirements but be required to put up an 8-foot fence.
The city council approved a solar ordinance last year and the special-use provision was added to give the city another project oversight mechanism.
“That land is zoned manufacturing, so if a large factory built here â€” letâ€™s say John Deere wanted to build tractors there, if we were to be so lucky â€” it would be way more obstructive to him than a solar array.”
In the end, only the panels will be visible, as installation doesnâ€™t involve intricate footings, only a concrete pad. The whole operation could be removed and the propertyâ€™s configuration would remain unchanged.
“It leaves no footprint on the ground, whatsoever,” Edwards said.
He said he hopes company officials can see past Turnerâ€™s bluster and know that Kewanee is a welcoming place for development.
“It would be a very sad thing if one person were able to make this go away,” he said.
Turner, who describes his fight as part a part of his a Christian Constitutionalist beliefs, said that wonâ€™t stop him from trying.
“I want them to turn it down, thatâ€™s the right way to do it,” Turner said in the phone interview. “I will never let this go. Iâ€™d like to prevent this from even happening. Iâ€™m not a lawsuit man, butâ€¦”