Removal of Independence solar farm up for discussion

Mike Genet
The Examiner USA TODAY NETWORK

Some Independence City Council members want the city to remove the solar farm on the old Rockwood Golf Course within a few years and commit the entire 90-plus acres as green space as part of the city parks system.  

A resolution on Tuesday's council agenda for that action, introduced by Council Members Mike Huff and Mike Steinmeyer, also makes a claim similar to a campaign mailer distributed by Holmes Osborne, who is running for mayor in next month’s primary and who claimed that Mayor Eileen Weir is negotiating with a developer to put “high-density, low income rental units” on the golf course land not covered by solar panels. 

The resolution says “elected officials are currently in negotiations with a developer” on such a plan. Weir rebutted that claim last month and reiterated her position earlier this month, saying that merely talking with people doesn't equate to making deals.  

“I talk to all kinds of people; that doesn't constitute making deals,” Weir said. “It's hearing ideas and trying to be helpful.”  

Weir said the referenced developer, Troy Nash, simply called the mayor to inform her he was talking with Congressman Emanuel Cleaver about possible federal funds for a housing project. 

The Rockwood and is near Nowlin MIddle School on Hardy Avenue in western Independence. 

The city did not receive any response from a “request for qualifications” on possible development ideas for the open 45 acres. That deadline was Dec. 9. The city has since reissued the RFQ with a Feb. 4 deadline. 

Question of cost 

When asked by The Examiner, neither Huff or Steinmeyer were able to give an estimated cost for removing the solar panels. While not mentioned in the resolution, the council members said the panels could possibly be moved elsewhere.  

The resolution calls for the city to remove by the solar panels by the end of 2025. At that point, Huff said, the city will have reached the point where it could exercise an option to buy the solar panels. That option is in the November 2017 contract with MC Power – drawn up when the city bought the Rockwood land. MC Power paid a half-million dollars up front for a 30-year lease to build the solar farm, and the city was obligated to buy all power produced from the solar panels at a fixed price. Ratepayers are able to voluntarily subscribe for solar power, but the Rockwood farm has not been fully subscribed. Per the contract, a third-party appraisal is required to exercise that purchase option. 

Although Huff said the cost of removing solar panels shouldn't be as much as some fear, Council Member Dan Hobart, whose district includes the Rockwood land, guesses that it would be “significant,” considering the lease price, the required appraisal and any costs of moving and reinstalling the solar panels. 

The resolution also included no potential cost for the parks department. The Rockwood land would be the largest parcel in the parks system, but Huff said the only cost would be to maintain the land against overgrowth temporarily, until a desirable redevelopment plan came along. 

Housing discussion 

After seeing Weir's initial claim denying any negotiating, Steinmeyer said it's not truthful for Weir to say such a low-income housing plan hasn't been discussed and that claim is a case of “amnesia.” He cited an email from citizen Becky Miles to another council member, which said Nash had met separately with Weir and Hobart to pitch a rental home plan involving state housing trust funds. 

“The idea that nobody knows anything isn't the case,” Steinmeyer said. 

According to Miles' email, obtained by The Examiner, she initially connected with Nash earlier in 2021 to help with her idea of a cluster of a small, owner-occupied houses that would be a co-op. Hobart moderated a community meeting in August about Rockwood, in which citizens voiced opposition for any low-income housing, rental homes or apartments and also complained about the solar farm. Shortly after that, Miles said Nash told her that her proposed project wasn't feasible. 

Weir said she talked with Miles, and “When I was in D.C., Troy Nash contacted me because he was talking to Cleaver about (Department of Housing and Urban Development) financing. He wanted me to be aware they'd talked, and we never talked specifically about any plans.”  

Weir said she told Nash to keep her posted, and when she later met with Cleaver, a housing project never came up. 

Like Weir, Hobart said he's had no negotiation with Nash or any developer.  

“In order to have negotiations, you have to have something to give, which I don't,” he said. “We just have the piece of land.” 

Miles “brought Troy Nash to the city, and Zach (Walker, city manager) involved me because it was my district,” he said. 

Hobart said he also would oppose putting a low-income, high-density development in the middle of an established neighborhood. If a better plan comes along that neighbors like and is good for the city, he said he's willing to talk about moving the solar panels, “but if we have nothing going there but a park, what's the justification?” 

Steinmeyer said he's open to a “serious discussion about what development we could do” at Rockwood, provided the city considers the recently completed housing study it had commissioned. According to that study, Independence severely lacks in affordable housing. 

“That's a significant piece about any discussion,” he said.