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Granville neighbors give up fight over Denison solar array

Two years after it was proposed, it appears a solar project on Denison University’s Biological Reserve will finally see the light of day.

After pushing back against the solar array, residents on Welsh Hills Road whose properties border the reserve are walking away from the battleground.

The residents have argued that the project will decrease property values and that the village of Granville has disregarded zoning legislation. But after filing an appeal against the project in August, the residents asked the court to dismiss their case earlier this month. That motion was granted and the case was officially dismissed Oct. 19.

The dismissal follows months of back-and-forth among the residents, village and university.

The project, announced in October 2014, will cover about 8 acres of the reserve with about 5,000 solar panels. The 350-acre reserve, which includes woods, wildlife and walking trails, was established decades ago and is used for biology and environmental science courses and field experiments.

After the village council upheld the zoning board’s initial approval for the project early in 2015, the residents filed an appeal with Licking County Common Pleas Court. Judge Thomas Marcelain sent the matter back to the council to determine whether the project constituted commercial use, which would have required a rezoning request. The council voted in January that the solar array did not constitute commercial use. In July, Marcelain upheld the council’s decision allowing the solar project.

Residents filed an appeal of that decision and requested a stay in August, so the project remained on hold.

The residents’ position hasn’t changed, said their attorney, Buck Mallory, but they felt there was “simply a lack of capacity to continue to litigate the matter.”

“These are homeowners and they’re trying to compete with the capacities of Denison University and the village, and it was too much for them to continue the action in the case of their opposition,” Mallory said.

With the court case dismissed, Denison is ready to move ahead with the project, said Denison Sustainability Coordinator Jeremy King. The university will negotiate a power-purchase agreement with American Electric Power and will have a better idea of a project timeline within the next several weeks.

The university will do its best to work with residents and stakeholders, King said, and has promised to put a buffer of shrubs and evergreen trees between the solar panels and the nearby homes.

“We’re excited to move forward and to put this behind us,” King said. “We are committed to doing this as responsibly as we can, so we’ll work with the neighbors in the process of the construction and when it’s all completed we’ll work with them to make sure that we screen this the best we can.”

The Welsh Hills Road residents argued in court documents that the project doesn’t meet all the requirements for the conditional use permit it was granted by the village. They also said it serves a commercial use because AEP will lease the land and provide the panels and then sell the solar-generated electricity back to Denison.

“They’re disappointed with the outcome,” Mallory said. “They feel like it was unfair that it fell to them to try to get the village to apply its code and it didn’t. That was bitter.”

Granville Law Director Michael King said the council decided the matter correctly and placed specific requirements on the project. Those include increasing the distance between the solar array and adjacent properties and requiring Denison to meet with neighbors after construction to monitor the effectiveness of the plant screening.

The council will consider new zoning legislation that would deal with solar energy as its own category, King said.

“We understand that there’s going to be more demand for solar going forward and it will be probably in different districts,” King said. “It won’t be so much uncertainty.”