GARDNER, Kansas − Donna Knoche made her way up to the podium at the Johnson County Commission hearing on June 6, 2022, her new yellow shirt crisp and her voice steady. It wasn’t something she’d ever thought she’d have to do in her 93 years in the place her grandfather first homesteaded in the 1860s.
Calmly setting aside her walker, she looked at the county commissioners arrayed to her left and began to speak.
“I never in all my life thought I would stand up here to protect our property rights by being able to use our land legally for the best benefit of our family,” she said.
To her right, scores of people were in line behind her. Many of them had other ideas.
Some implored the commissioners to vote to allow the so-called West Gardner plan, a utility-size array of solar panels, saying the county needed to commit to clean energy for their children’s future.
But others were just as passionately opposed. Many wore matching T-shirts that implored the council to “Stop INDUSTRIAL SOLAR,” testifying for more than three hours against the plan for Knoche’s farm and others across the county.
To them, the solar plant would “threaten health and well-being” and did not fit “the character of the land.” It would create “a landscape of black glass and towering windmills,” that would put lives at risk and cause “a mass exodus out of the area.”
The fight played out in front of one small county commission in one 613,000-person county. But at its heart, this fight – and hundreds of others like it across the country – was over the future of the whole nation’s energy supply and, perhaps, the future of the planet.
As the country races to shift to carbon-free energy to forestall climate change, opposition movements have popped up nationwide to fight new solar and wind farms, hampering America’s chances of meeting its climate pledges.
A USA TODAY analysis of local rules and policies nationwide found that, as of December, 15% of counties in the United States had banned or otherwise blocked new utility-scale wind farms, solar installations or both.
In the past decade, 183 U.S. counties had their first wind projects start producing power, while nearly 375 blocked new wind turbines. In 2023, almost as many counties blocked new solar projects as added them.
The reasons for local opposition are varied and the motives behind them can be murky but often boil down to one essential idea: Renewables are fine, but we don’t want them here.
That’s a problem, said Grace Wu, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies energy systems and land use change. “If nowhere seems to be the right place, increasingly we’ll have a harder and harder time to site them.”
The land owned by the Knoche family is just one spot in a statewide fight in Kansas, which has both the nation’s fourth best wind resources and, as solar power technology has become more efficient, strong solar as well: the same sunlight that drives photosynthesis in large-scale crops like corn can generate energy in solar panels.
Yet now, 14 of the 105 counties in Kansas block wind turbines and 12 block solar farms. These include outright bans, height restrictions, unworkable setbacks for turbines, size limitations for solar farms, caps on the amount of agricultural land that can be used and, in McPherson County, an “indefinite moratorium” on solar applications.
These efforts mirror those in hundreds of counties and townships across the nation, where the merest hint of a potential project quickly brings forth a Facebook group, yard signs, organized protests and – increasingly – zoning rules and laws that make new renewable energy impossible to build.
Seen as just one flare-up in a nationwide trend to oppose local green-energy projects, the fight in Johnson County shouldn’t be surprising.
But to Donna Knoche, 93, and her husband Robert “Doc” Knoche, 95, it’s bewildering – and annoying.
For them, leasing acres to a solar farm would simplify their land’s care, keep it available for farming when the lease runs out and allow it to continue to be passed on through the generations.
“We figured it was just one of those sorts of things that you could do – like buying a house or leasing a car. You could just do it on your own and not have to deal with all this complexity,” Donna said.
Instead, it has become a five-year battle.
“I had no idea it would drag on this long,” said Doc.
Deep roots in Kansas
Both Donna and Doc have deep roots in this land.
Donna’s grandfather William Brecheisen came to the United States in 1850 as a 7-year-old. His German-speaking family was from Alsace–Lorraine, at that time part of the German Empire.
“They got the Kansas Fever,” she said. “They came out in a prairie schooner wagon,” she said.
William served in the Union Army during the Civil War and then came home to Kansas, where he homesteaded 160 acres of the flat, productive plains.
“We have the patent from 1868,” Donna said proudly from her well-worn chair next to her husband’s matching one in the living room of their simple rambler in Gardner, Kansas. They’ve lived here since 1959. It’s where they raised their six children.
Robert is universally known as Doc after working more than 60 years as a large animal veterinarian in the area – he still has his license. He grew up in the town of Paola. After the death of his mother he was raised on his uncle and aunt’s farm. At the time, they worked the land not with machines but with half a dozen horses – “and two mules,” he said.
Too young to serve in World War II, he had to wait several years to start veterinary school because all the slots were reserved for veterans.
He graduated in 1954 and settled in Gardner, a town of 650 at the time.
He roomed with a local woman who took in boarders, and went on dates with a few girls in town. “I never asked for a second date,” he says. Then his landlady’s daughter had a baby at the new hospital in Gardner and Robert met a nurse who had just been hired there – Donna.
Their first date was on July 12, 1952, “to a picture show in Ottawa” about 25 miles away. They drove in Doc’s 1951 Ford.
Today when they tell this story, the couple look at each other – their matching chairs side by side – and smile.
“We’ve been married for 70 years,” Donna said.
“So that’s how it all worked out,” Doc said.
Those 160 acres that Donna’s grandfather had farmed grew as the family bought up additional land.
Today that legacy is about 1,190 acres of farmland that straddles Johnson and Douglas counties. For many years, the Knoches rented out most of the ground to Donna’s uncle Lucky Brecheisen, who grew corn, soybeans and hay. After he died in 1997 they took over, eventually running a 200-head cow-calf operation in addition to the veterinary practice.
“We bought some land south of Gardner and we had mostly Angus cattle of our own,” Doc said. “I built the fences and mowed the hay. Mom would answer the phone when people called for emergencies.”
“It wasn’t easy, it was long hours,” Doc says of the 10-year stint. Shoulder surgery around 2010 forced him to give up his herd. Since then, they’ve rented the land to other farmers and ranchers.
Doc doesn’t call himself a farmer, but he knows the soil is not as fertile as it is elsewhere. “Lucky always said, ‘We’ve got all bottom land – because the top land is all washed away.’ So it’s not the good prime ground you think of,” Doc said.
Keeping the land healthy and productive is important to the family. “We’ve worked to conserve the soil and make it better through the years,” said Donna.
In time, they realized they would never farm the whole property, and no one person in their family was likely to, either. That led to a conundrum.
The Knoches have six children, 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. As they approached their 90s, they’d wrestled with how to divide the 1,190 acres among all those heirs.
They had a plan for sharing, but then a better one came up. In 2018, they came home to a message on their answering machine.
The caller was from a solar developer looking to lease land in the area for a solar farm.
“Well, I called him back and we talked about it,” Doc said, “and it sounded better than farming.” It didn’t hurt that one of their sons-in-law, Steve Clark, was an engineer and solar consultant, so they had an expert to talk with.
The Knoches ended up signing a four-year lease on their land with NextEra Energy, as did other landowners and farmers nearby.
The deal gave the company an option to build on the land. The Knoches got a little bit of money for the agreement, and for a while, nothing else happened. “We didn’t make a big show of it,” Donna said.
They figured it would take a long time for an energy plant to be developed, if ever.
They’d heard stories about windmills in other places, and how people fought them. This seemed different. A solar farm would keep the rural land from being built up as something else – a subdivision, or a warehouse. The panels lasted a long time, up to 30 years, but after that, they could be removed and the land could be farmed again, if people wanted.
They didn’t think about it much for the next few years.
“I really hadn’t heard much about people fighting solar,” Doc said. Then he looked over at his wife, something between a smile and a grimace on his face.
“So we found out about it,” he said.
The opposition to solar
The planned solar farm – the West Gardner Solar Project – was originally proposed to include as much as 3,000 acres spread over Douglas and Johnson counties that would generate up to 320 megawatts of electricity. The project would also include 129 megawatts of battery storage, to make the solar energy available when the sun isn’t shining.
Then things got contentious.
People heard about the leases and began to organize against the proposed solar farm. A Facebook group opposing the project appeared, several groups were formed and a website was created.
Soon there were hearings scheduled before the Johnson County commissioners, who were considering various proposals amending the zoning regulations for solar facilities and battery storage.
There were work sessions. Planning commission meetings. Subcommittee meetings. The work stretched for more than a year.
Crowds of opponents flocked to public meetings to demand the plans for a solar farm be shut down.
The family estimates between the two counties they’ve attended more than a dozen meetings, not including the ones they’ve watched online.
Finally, June 2022 arrived. The goal on this warm summer night was to vote on exactly what the county would allow. How large could the solar installations be? How far must they be from towns? What about stormwater runoff? How much of a buffer should there be from the land of other neighbors who weren’t part of the project? How many years would permits be valid?
Even if county commissioners allowed solar projects, there would still be other hurdles.
Opponents decried what they call industrial wind and solar and said the installations have no place in an idyllic landscape of corn, wheat, soybeans and cattle.
They said solar panels would drip toxic chemicals from their glass into the ground, contaminating wells. The land under them would heat up and kill all surrounding vegetation. The solar cells and batteries planned to accompany them would be at risk for catastrophic fires that country firefighters would be unable to contain. Property values would fall and so much of the land would be consumed that the country would risk starving.
Those Johnson County meetings aired many of the same concerns that emerged nationwide, in more than a dozen different local zoning meetings reviewed online or in person by USA TODAY.
The problem with these concerns is that almost none of them are true.
“They had these meetings and they were very negative,” said Karlene Thomson, one of the Knoches’ daughters. “A lot of misinformation got put out.”
The meeting on June 6, 2022, lasted more than three hours.
It began with a solemn recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Then speaker after speaker came forward. There were many in favor of the project, but most were adamantly – though politely – opposed.
To them the solar farm was an intrusion of industrial energy production that would destroy the rural community that they loved.
Not that the area hadn’t long been home to more than farms. The 9,000 acre Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant was built there in 1942, employing more than 15,000 people at the height of World War II. In 2013, BNSF Railway opened an intermodal shipping hub in the southern part of the county. The 330-acre I-35 Logistics Park opened the same year. Panasonic broke ground on a new battery plant on the old ammunition plant in 2022.
And people from nearby Olathe, Overland Park and even Kansas City kept moving deeper into the county, buying small 5- and 10-acre plots to build their dream homes on.
But thousands of acres of solar panels was something no one had ever experienced, and they didn’t like it.
“This is so far off from being right, I don’t even have words. You will be affecting over 200 homeowners and 1,200 souls with one project,” said Lisa Huppe of nearby Edgerton, Kansas.
“We are not against solar energy. However, when it comes to utility scale facilities in the agricultural communities of rural Johnson County, it’s the wrong choice,” she said. “If you allow this to happen, commissioners, you will devalue the property and destroy the lives that we have spent years building here and threaten our health and well-being.”
Many opponents sported T-shirts that read “County Commissioners: Protect our Quality of Life. Let us help you draft regulations that stop INDUSTRIAL SOLAR.”
“We stand to lose the character of our communities, with a transition from agricultural to industrial use,” said Pam Ferguson of Eudora. “Developers want you to think that we need to turn our state into a landscape of black glass and towering windmills. And if you do so, the planet will be ruined.”
Solar and wind power need to be sited responsibly, away from places like Johnson County which have lots of people in them, said Carrie Brandon, chairperson for Douglas County/Johnson County Kansans for Responsible Solar.
“We realize that renewable energy is needed to offset oil and coal,” she said. “But we have brilliant people on our planet who are constantly coming up with new energy inventions. Haste makes for waste – we can be smart about it and not just go all in on blanketing rural areas and taking agricultural land out of our inventory.”
Brandon says her work to fight the project has taken a toll on her health and her business. “I’ve spent at least half a million dollars at my hourly rate, it’s been an enormous effort over the last three years,” she said.
For the Knoches, the desire to farm the sun on their land is a simple matter of property rights. They and other landowners want to maximize the profit they make from their fields without having to sell it off or break it up. It’s their land. They should use it as they see fit.
“This opposition doesn’t seem to be concerned about property rights for anybody but themselves,” said Donna.
Of course, zoning restrictions are nothing new. The Knoches think the solar panels – not very tall, silent, no smoke or other emissions – make for a better fit in farm country than almost anything else that might get built.
But the family also can’t help but see it as a matter of seniority. After all, this has been their land for the better part of two centuries.
Doc does allow that things started to change even in the 1950s. People moved out of the city to small farms for the ambiance.
Back in those days they were called agriculturalists.
“There was a story about the difference between a farmer and an agriculturalist,” he said. “A farmer makes money on the farm and spends it in town. An agriculturalist makes money in town and comes out and buys a farm and spends it on his farm,” Doc said.
Back then, the spreads people bought were maybe 160 acres, he said. People actually farmed. Today the lot sizes of those seeking a rural lifestyle are a lot smaller, often as little as five acres, said their daughter Jane Knoche.
“Their big statement is they came out to the rural peace and quiet of the rural area,” she said.
The issue has been divisive enough that it’s made the county a less neighborly place. On a drive to visit the land where the solar farm would be built, Jane pointed out sign after sign on fenceposts and in storefronts reading “No Industrial Solar” and “Protect our Quality of Life.”
“Not so fun to see,” Jane said.
Doc, who loves airplanes and aviation, likes to hang out at the tiny Gardner Municipal Airport with his buddies. Until the day someone tracked him down there to confront him about the plan.
“He came in there and said ‘I guess you’re real proud of the fact that you’ve lowered everybody’s property values,’” he said.
Facing the future of green energy
Renewable energy plants do get built in Kansas.
Two hours northwest of the Knoches’ home is the Amerugi Farm. It’s 400 acres of corn, soybeans, barley, oats, rye and alfalfa, woodlands and pasture. It’s also home to one wind turbine that’s part of the Soldier Creek Wind Energy Center.
The wind project, which includes 120 turbines dotted across the fields of 200 participating landowners, went into operation in 2020 and today produces up to 300 megawatts of electricity, about enough for about 64,000 homes.
Mary Fund and her husband Ed Reznicek have farmed there since 1978 on land Fund’s family has owned since the 1870s. The one wind turbine on their land gives them a small lease payment.
“It’s a nice little addition to our retirement income but it’s not going to make us rich,” said Fund, 70.
She views that turbine in much the same way her mother and aunt saw the oil leases on the farm in the early 1980s.
“They struck oil, so we have a couple of oil wells on our land. They helped my mother in her old age,” she said.
Indeed, across the farm country where green energy is now controversial, pump jacks and gas wells have long extracted from the ground below to create a far less green kind of energy. Nemaha County is home to 22 oil wells and in 2022 produced 33,788 barrels of oil, enough to make as much as 675,000 gallons of gasoline.
The state as a whole has more than 48,000 oil wells and 19,000 natural gas wells in production in 2023.
It’s a kind of karma, Fund said. “You don’t let them extract oil from your land and then not let them put up a turbine.”
They signed a lease in July 2018 that gave a three-year option for NextEra to explore use of their land as a site for a potential turbine, but only after several months of communications with the wind farm representative, visiting other windfarms to see what it felt like to be near turbines and a lot of research.
“I really have to confess I didn’t think anybody would oppose it,” she said. “I mean, why would you?”
She was wrong. Things quickly got testy, much of it organized through Facebook. Speakers railed against wind and stacks of a misinformation-filled book appeared on the counters of local businesses and local libraries all winter long.
“It was never clear who brought these into the county, but the website of South Dakotans for Safe & Responsible Renewable Energy offers a case of 30 for $1,000 donations,” she said.
The furor over the plan made the couple enemies in the place they’d lived together for 45 years, the place where Fund grew up.
“There are people who don’t talk to each other anymore, and people who grudgingly moved on and talk about everything but the wind farm,” she said. “I’ve got a neighbor who won’t talk to me, but her husband will.”
In the end, county commissioners voted to approve the wind farm in 2019. It was built in 2020 and now brings about $900,000 in taxes to the county each year.
That’s on top of the lease payments made directly to landowners including Mary and Ed.
The Soldier Creek turbines dot a spare, wind-swept landscape of farms, grazing land, creeks and woodlots.
Living near the turbines hasn’t bothered the couple. On quiet nights they can hear both the turbine and the oil wells.
But theirs seems likely to be the last wind power that will be built in Nemaha County. After the first conditional use permits were approved in early 2019, the county commission passed a moratorium on new projects in May of 2019.
In October of 2023 they passed a resolution extending the moratorium for another year. A new County Comprehensive Plan documents opposition to further wind energy and effectively warns off developers.
When the Knoches first began considering the possibility of a solar project on their land, they were both in their 80s. Doc was still enjoying his hobby of going up in a gas-powered hang glider. Three of their children were still in their 50s and they only had 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
In December 2023, everyone was older. Doc had stopped flying and suffered a fall. Donna had to be more careful when she walked.
And they weren’t much closer to having a deal.
Both Douglas and Johnson counties have passed new zoning regulations surrounding solar. In Douglas as of 2022, projects are limited to no more than 1,000 acres and must be at least 500 feet from existing residences. In Johnson, there’s a cap of 2,000 acres per project and a one-and-a-half mile setback from neighboring cities.
Another solar project, which had nothing to do with their land, is now also going through the process in Douglas County. It ended the year with a packed planning meeting that went past 2:00 am on Dec. 19, which is now headed to yet another vote by the county commission.
The Knoches continue to live in their modest rambler, full of photos, mementos. They visit children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They offer donuts to guests and pull out scrapbooks with clippings about the project along with books on the family’s history in the area.
Both wonder at the changes they’ve seen in their lives. Donna tells of growing up with kerosene lamps and remembers when they first got an Aladdin lamp, which burned kerosene but used a mantle instead of a wick.
“It was almost like night and day compared to that old kerosene lamp,” she said. “We didn’t get electricity out in the farm until, it was 1947 or 1948, when I was in high school.”
Doc ponders the shifts in a state where he first plowed with horses and mules. As he testified to the county commission, he’s not afraid solar power will turn the county’s farmland into an industrial wasteland.
He’s afraid of the constant push to turn farms into subdivisions.
“Out here,” he said, “I think in five, ten years you’ll be glad it’s there because you’re going to be crowded out by other people.”
This story was produced with support from the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Solar power in Kansas: How one couple’s land lease became a fight