Salt-flat solar angers inconvenienced islanders
An island of salt flats off the southwest coast is being covered with solar panels, and some locals are up in arms.
"We are suffering from noise, dust and vibration damage from the construction site," said a resident of Sinmyeong Village, Imja Island.
On Jan. 24, 17 inhabitants of the village filed a class action suit demanding a complete halt to a 185-billion-won ($155 million) solar power project.
The plant is being built on a 1.1-million-square-meter (11.9-million-square-feet) plot, which used to be the largest salt flat on Imja Island, Sinan County, South Jeolla. Construction began last June.
The plaintiffs are calling for a revocation of the development permit.
"Neither the local authorities nor the construction company tried to get opinions from the residents on the matter in advance," the Sinmyeong Village resident said. "Our daily lives, as well as livelihoods from the local salt industry, are being threatened."
The plaintiffs claim the county office unfairly granted the development permit even though the law prohibits building a solar-energy generation facility within 100 meters of a residential area with 10 households or more.
"Currently, the distance between the solar power plant construction site and one resident's house is a mere three meters," said the Sinmyeong Village residents in a written complaint submitted to the Gwangju District Court, "and some residents are living only 34 to 65 meters away from solar facilities."
The distance has to be at least 50 meters if the number of households nearby is fewer than 10.
"Some residential areas with fewer than 10 households are located only 19 to 43 meters from the solar plant," wrote the plaintiffs.
Sinan County is the nation's leading sea salt producer and has an abundant sunlight, which makes it ideal for the solar energy business. The Sinan County Office enacted a new rule in 2018 to pay a dividend to local residents, sharing profit from renewable energy.
Households living within a 500 meters of solar power facilities get 2.04-million won per person a year. If the distance is more than 500 meters and less than one kilometer, the annual payment is 1.36 million won, and 680,000 won is paid to those living more than a kilometer from a solar generation facility.
The Sinan County Office has approved 2,066 solar energy projects over the past three years, and these projects cover 14.17 million square meters of land.
"Some 60 percent of the permitted projects took place on salt flats," an official at Sinan County said.
The salt industry in Sinan is dwindling as a result. Tenant farmers on the salt flats are under pressure to leave the farms with compensation, while some companies are considering filing damage suits against the local government.
"The Sinan County Office altered the land-use zoning of a building without notifying the property owner, to unjustly grant permission to a solar energy facility," argued an anonymous Sinmyeong Village resident partaking in the lawsuit.
The resident claimed that the local authority changed the zoning category of a fermented shrimp factory owned by the resident, which had been registered as a neighborhood facility — a facility that provides necessary services and commodities for neighborhoods — to a warehouse in December 2019, without notifying the owner of the change.
"The county office changed the land-use zoning in a rush, a month before granting the development permit in January 2020, because establishing a solar power plant right in front of a neighborhood facility might have caused some issues," said the resident, adding that the development permit is still illegal regardless of the alteration since there is also a residential area nearby.
Sinan County countered by saying that Sinmyeong Village is not classified as a residential area with more than 10 households, because each house is separated from the others by more than 100 meters.
"It is true that solar power plants should be some distance apart from a residential area according to rules," said a spokesperson for Sinan County Office, "but the residents who filed the suit are living some 100 meters apart from one another, therefore it can hardly be considered as a densely populated residential area."
The zoning change was part of "an administrative measure made during the maintenance process of land-use registration database," the County Office explained, saying that the construction plan was revised after the issue arose.
BY JIN CHANG-IL [email@example.com]