As Ohio clamps down on clean energy, recent changes make it easier to force landowners to allow oil and gas drilling

As Ohio clamps down on clean energy, recent changes make it easier to force landowners to allow oil and gas drilling

Ohio has seen a big jump in the number of agency orders forcing property owners to allow oil and gas development on their land, whether they want it or not. 

The number of so-called “unitization” orders issued by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has surged in recent years, peaking at 112 in 2022 and continuing at nearly 100 last year, according to data obtained from the agency by the Energy News Network. 

The practice is common, with rules varying by state. In Ohio, lawmakers began working to streamline the process for oil and gas companies in 2019, coinciding with a decline in the state’s gas production after a seven-year fracking boom.

Those changes run contrary to other efforts in Ohio to restrict energy development in the name of neighbors’ private property rights, including strict wind farm setbacks passed in 2014 and a 2021 law allowing counties to block new wind and solar projects.

Under Ohio law, companies must meet several conditions before initiating unitization, including a showing that at least 65% of property owners in a project area consent to drilling. 

Critics say the process was already tilted in the companies’ favor, and that the recent changes will make it even harder to block drilling or negotiate concessions.

“All the cards are stacked against us,” said Patrick Hunkler. In 2018, ODNR issued an unitization order for property he and his wife, Jean Backs, own in Belmont County, which is one of the state’s top-producing counties for oil and gas. The developer later canceled the project, so the order was revoked. More recently, Ascent Resources had tried to lease their land before backing out.  

The legal process known as unitization has been available to Ohio oil and gas companies since 1965 but was rarely used until about a decade ago, after advances in drilling technology made it profitable to tap into harder-to-develop pockets of petroleum.

“The unitization process exists to protect the rights of those … who want to lease their minerals for development,” said Rob Brundrett, president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, “so that a small minority of owners … cannot stop everyone else from realizing the full potential of their property and minerals.”

For petroleum companies, the process has also promoted efficient oil and gas extraction. Otherwise, reduced pressure from too many wells could reduce the total recovery from an area.

Companies must show they have consent from owners of 65% of the area above a common oil and gas deposit before they can seek a unitization order. Companies also must show they tried to reach an agreement with holdouts, and that drilling under those properties is necessary to substantially increase the amount of oil and gas recovered. Any added value must also exceed the related costs.

“Our experience at the unitization hearing was that oil and gas runs the show,” Backs said.

Hearings don’t consider environmental impacts or other reasons landowners might not want drilling and fracking. “It’s just not part of the evaluation,” said Heidi Robertson, a Cleveland State University law professor who has written about unitization. Rather, she said, the basic question is: “Will adding this land to the unit make it easier for the developer to more efficiently and more profitably get the oil and gas out of the ground?”

The answer is almost always yes. 

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has denied only one unitization application since 2012, according to spokesperson Andy Chow. Meanwhile, it has approved more than 500 applications, with more than half the orders issued after 2020. The agency hired an additional employee in 2021 to deal with an increase in applications, Chow said.

Owners whose property is unitized won’t have pads or roads on their property, but they still get royalties and other payments. Ohio law requires “just and reasonable” compensation for landowners.

In most cases that compensation starts with a 12.5% royalty. Additional payments are adjusted for the developer’s expenses and other factors and the compensation is often smaller than that for voluntary participants. Orders typically have let companies recoup twice those amounts before unitized landowners can get payouts beyond royalties, said attorney Matthew Onest, whose firm has represented multiple landowners in oil and gas matters. 

In some cases, property owners must wait even longer. At a March 27 hearing, for example, drilling company EAP Ohio asked for a “500% penalty” for owners who did not agree to a lease. Anna Biblowitz, a negotiator for Encino Energy, claimed the higher penalty was justified by the developer’s risk and “as a motivator for other working interest owners to participate.” A ruling in the case is due this month.

Why are there more orders?

Some property owners, including Backs and Hunkler, worry about climate change and other environmental impacts. They said companies wouldn’t agree to requested lease terms for no flaring, methane monitoring and monitoring of the spring on their property.

“These oil and gas companies aren’t addressing the important issues of our environment,” Hunkler said.

Other landowners may hold out because they want more money, said Onest. “They kind of dig their heels in,” he said.

Industry experts said market forces could partially explain the rise in unitization cases. Property owners could hold out more often because they want higher payments like others got early on in the state’s fracking boom. Or, higher oil prices might be motivating companies to pursue projects that once seemed too complicated to be worthwhile. 

State officials have made the process easier, too. In 2019, lawmakers added language about how to calculate the 65% threshold, tucking the terms into a 2,600-page state budget law. Matt Hammond, who was then president of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association, told lawmakers the added language was meant to “clarify” the law. 

In practice, the change likely lowered a barrier for companies to use the tool, according to Clif Little, an Ohio State University Extension educator in Old Washington, Ohio. “If you’re seeing actually more [cases] for forced unitization, that would be a significant player in that,” Little said.

Another law passed in 2022 requires the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to hold hearings on unitization applications within 60 days. The agency must rule within 60 days of the hearing, and also let companies know in advance if an application is incomplete.

For industry, the primary benefit from the 2022 law change was to get certainty about timing. “This impacted how a producer was able to plan their drilling schedules,” said Mike Chadsey, director of external affairs for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources also changed its guidelines last year to standardize unitization applications. The agency’s website said the changes were “aimed at streamlining the review process” and that applications would include fewer documents.

Among other things, companies don’t need to file testimony from engineers, geologists and landmen in advance of hearings — something they had generally done in the past, said Robertson at Cleveland State. In her view, that further limits any dissenting landowners’ ability to prepare challenges to such testimony when the hearing does take place.

The Covid-19 pandemic also affected unitization hearings, which are now generally held via Zoom. “Allowing these meetings to be held via Zoom is a benefit to all parties involved,” Chadsey said, adding that it’s more convenient for landowners.

Folks in “suits and ties” had to come from out of state when ODNR held the unitization hearing for Hunkler and Backs’ property back in 2017. With a remote format, though, the hearing panel and company personnel “don’t have to look at you in person,” Hunkler said.

Oil and gas companies said they take every step to avoid forced leases, but that unitization is an important tool when that is not possible.

“When those means are exhausted, which often includes situations of poor record-keeping or the inability to locate an owner, unitization can be a tool to ensure property and mineral rights are realized by all stakeholders,” said Zack Arnold, president and CEO of Infinity Natural Resources.

Jackie Stewart, vice president of external affairs for Encino Energy voiced a similar position. “Encino makes every attempt to lease all landowners in each unit and only utilized unitization after all leasing efforts are exhausted, so the property rights of Ohio’s landowners can be realized,” she said.

“This isn’t something any lawyer can handle. You have to be an expert in this stuff,” Robertson said. “And all the experts are on the other side, because that’s where the money is.”

Robertson is unaware of any legislation to make matters fairer for landowners who don’t want to lease their land. And gerrymandering makes it unlikely such bills will be passed anytime soon. As she sees it, the process is “stacked against the dissenting landowner.”

As Ohio clamps down on clean energy, recent changes make it easier to force landowners to allow oil and gas drilling is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Hundreds demand university ‘disclose, divest’ investments in Israel

A person holds a bullhorn and speaks.
A person holds a bullhorn and speaks.
Speakers lead chants as Ohio University’s Students for Justice in Palestine wrap up their May 1 demonstration outside Cutler Hall. Photo by Abigael Miles

ATHENS, Ohio — A student-organized protest for Gaza on the Ohio University campus last week drew at least 200 participants, who briefly occupied a university building before marching to the College Green.

The protest, organized by the Ohio University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (aka Bobcats for Palestine), was one of dozens of college campus demonstrations occurring across the country. The protest began shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday evening at Bicentennial Park by Walter Hall, and concluded around 6:15 p.m. at Cutler Hall. 

The group is only around three months old, said Deika Ahmed, an OU senior studying marketing who serves as OUSJP’s media contact. 

Demonstrators at last week’s protest called for a ceasefire in the War on Gaza, an end to Palestinian genocide and for Ohio University to disclose and divest its investments in Israel. That would require state lawmakers to repeal Ohio Revised Code 9.76, which prohibits universities from divesting any portions of their investment portfolios in Israel. 

“We think [ORC 9.76] goes against our First Amendment rights,” OUSJP member Sophie Grubbs said in an email. “At this time, we do not have any more information about OU’s investments. We are going to research this during the summer!” 

Ahmed said the university’s contract with Coca-Cola is one example of its investment in Israel. The company has become a target of a pro-Palestinian boycotting because it operates a facility in Israel. 

Unlike many campus demonstrations elsewhere this spring, OU’s protest had no major or overt police presence, allowing the marchers to disperse peacefully. 

The university “connected in advance with its organizers to help ensure everyone involved could safely exercise their right to express their views while remaining aware that such activities should neither infringe on the rights of others nor disrupt University activities and operations,” OU spokesperson Daniel Pittman said in an email.

The protest culminated in a revolving occupation of Baker University Center. For several minutes demonstrators chanted, held signs and played instruments as they rode up all four floors of escalators, rode back down, exited the building and circled back around. 

Eventually, the demonstrators headed north on Court Street, entered through the Alumni Gateway on College Green and wrapped up outside of Cutler Hall. 

Although OUSJP organized the protest, community members of all ages participated in the demonstration. Organizers said that present were two medics and “security personnel,” who helped demonstrators cross streets safely and watch the demonstration’s perimeters.

Demonstrators held signs, wore keffiyehs, beat drums, and passed out water and snacks. Chants included “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest,” “Free, free Palestine,” and “OU, Divest.”

The protest also featured speakers both before and after the walk. At least two speakers were Jewish and spoke about their support for Palestine and personal relationships with Zionism. 

One speaker was Davey McNelly, who spoke before the walk through Baker. McNelly co-founded Athens’ Jewish Voices for Peace 5 years ago.

“As a Jewish person who grew up in southeastern Ohio, it’s sometimes rough – you can feel like you’re on your own here – but I do want to say, it’s definitely not anti-Semitic to call out Israel, to call out an apartheid state,” McNelly said. “These are our Jewish beliefs – that you stand up for what’s right.” 

Two counterprotesters drove past demonstrators while waving an Israeli flag from their vehicle. The duo later stood on the fourth floor of Baker and stood silently as protestors left the building to walk up Court Street.  

Local activists have held several antiwar protests since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack in Israel, which launched a counteroffensive that has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians — most of them women and children. 

They also have taken their cause to local governments: In February, against the advice of its law director, Athens City Council passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in the ongoing conflict. The village of Chauncey will decide this week whether to pass its own ceasefire resolution.

Scenes of OUSJP’s May 1 protest.

Video by Abigael Miles.

The post Hundreds demand university ‘disclose, divest’ investments in Israel appeared first on Athens County Independent.

State officials to test local drinking water for fracking waste contamination

Environmental activist Roxanne Groff speaks at a March 27 town hall about threats from local fracking waste injection wells. Photo by Dani Kington.

ATHENS COUNTY, Ohio — The Ohio Department of Natural Resources will test well water for possible contamination after determining toxic waste from four fracking waste injection wells in eastern Athens County spread underground.

On March 27, about 50 people heard updates on the ODNR’s water testing plan and related issues at a town hall in Coolville organized by community members. The discussion at the town hall was lively, with community members frequently raising hands to ask questions and voice concerns.

“It makes me want to cry,” said Coolville resident Dawn Harman, who learned about possible contamination at the town hall. Harman told the Independent she moved to the area “to not have all that pollution and live in my 40 acres of woods.”

The ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management found last year that toxic fracking waste from four injection wells poses an “imminent danger” to health and the environment.

“While the division has received no reports of adverse effects to human health or safety associated with the implicated injection wells,” the division will hire a consultant to “conduct a groundwater study to ensure no evidence of adverse impacts to ground water can be found,” according to the division’s request for proposals.

“It’s not a good place to be … but it’s a better place to be than not having the investment in testing,” said Ohio University professor and groundwater expert Natalie Kruse Daniels at the Coolville town hall.

The division is evaluating bids from two consultants and “hopes to award a contract in the near future,” according to a March 26 statement Division Chief Eric Vendel shared with town hall organizer Roxanne Groff. 

One of the four injection wells at issue is a Rome Township well operated by Reliable Enterprises that the division suspended in May 2023. The next month, the division suspended the other three injection wells, operated by K&H Partners in nearby Torch.

While the Rome Township well permanently ceased operation after the ODNR’s suspension order, K&H fought its suspension vigorously. K&H appealed the division’s order both to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas and the quasi-judicial Ohio Oil and Gas Commission, which specifically hears these types of cases.

The Franklin County case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, while the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission heard arguments in the case in December 2023. Four months later, the commission has yet to issue a final decision.

The K&H wells have operated continuously without modification since October, when the commission allowed the company to continue operations throughout the appeal process.


Related reading from the Athens County Independent:

In a January post-hearing brief the division warned, “If K&H is allowed to continue operating the K&H Wells without modifications, critical freshwater in … Athens County could be irreparably destroyed.”

According to its water sample analysis plan, the division will test water from wells within a half mile of the four implicated injection wells and seven oil and gas production wells. 

Page 5 of ODNR Water Testing Sample Analysis Plan - KH and Frost

Contributed to DocumentCloud by Dani Kington (Athens County Independent) • View document or read text

The division previously concluded the seven production wells were impacted by underground migration of toxic fracking waste, known as brine. 

Data released by the Pennsylvania-based watchdog group FracTracker shows that at least two of the three K&H wells in question have been injected with waste containing polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. PFAs are linked to birth defects and increased risk of cancer.


Related reading from the Athens County Independent:

ODNR data published by FracTracker shows fracking waste in Ohio contains radioactive waste as well. The radioactive compounds that ODNR found in fracking waste can remain in the environment for thousands of years and cause bone, liver and breast cancer.

The division’s consultant will test water from 33 water wells in Athens and Washington counties.

Kruse Daniels presented on the division’s water sample analysis plan at the Coolville town hall and said the database the division used to identify water wells “is a little hit or miss, but it’s a good starting point.”

Meanwhile, Groff, an environmental activist and former Athens County commissioner who presented at the townhall, said the division’s proposed area of review “doesn’t go far enough.” That’s because the division has found that brine spread further than a half mile from injection wells, she said.

The division found that brine from the Reliable Enterprises well impacted oil and gas production wells as far as 2 miles away, while brine from the K&H wells impacted production wells as far as 1.5 miles away. In a separate instance of brine migration in Washington County, the division found that brine spread even farther.

The division will primarily evaluate impacts to water supplies by testing for chloride concentrations and measurable bromide. If chloride concentrations and the ratio of chloride and bromide in the water surpass given thresholds, the division will recommend additional testing.

Groff told the Independent she doesn’t think the division’s proposed set of parameters for water sampling are sufficient.

Kruse Daniels, however, said at the town hall, “I can always say ‘sample for more’ — but I think actually what they laid out does make pretty good sense.”

ODNR media representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Kruse Daniels said “the proof will be in the pudding in a lot of ways,” regarding the sufficiency of the division’s water testing.

“This is a single sample at a single time point, but what we understand is that how contaminants move in the environment is very time-based,” Kruse Daniels said. “When we look at how these things could move, we’re talking about — is it thousands of years, is it hundreds of years, is it tens of years? And a lot of those things we don’t know.”

Kruse Daniels said it will be important for the division to compare water parameters in the area over time.

The Division’s bidding process closed on March 15.

Once the division awards a contract, the consultant will have 90 days to conduct water testing and an additional 30 days to issue a final report, per the RFP.

In addition to discussing the division’s water testing plan, speakers at the town hall also discussed a petition to revoke Ohio’s regulatory authority over its underground injection program and Ohio’s history of underground injection well incidents.

Groff encouraged community members to contact their elected representatives in the Ohio Statehouse to share disapproval with Ohio’s current rules regulating injection wells.

“We have voices; we need to use them,” Groff said.

Elevating the voices of the people was part of why Groff and other activists organized the town hall, she said. 

“They don’t offer themselves to people,” Groff said, referring to the ODNR. “So the people have to organize themselves to have these meetings.”

The town hall was hosted by Torch Can Do, the Buckeye Environmental Network, the Ohio Brine Task Force and Athens County Future Action Network.

The post ODNR to test local drinking water for fracking waste contamination appeared first on Athens County Independent.

Athens-Hocking Recycling Centers eyes phase-out of operations

State regulators investigated 26 Athens County oil and gas incidents in last five years

ATHENS COUNTY, Ohio — The Ohio Department of Natural Resources investigated at least 26 oil and gas incidents in Athens County over the past five years, according to ODNR data analyzed and published by the environmental nonprofit FracTracker Alliance.

Across the state, ODNR investigated more than 1,500 incidents over the same period, from 2018 through early September 2023.

That’s a stark contrast with the claims of some industry leaders: FracTracker’s investigation began after Rob Brundrett, president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, told WOSU that Ohio rarely has issues with oil and gas incidents.

Brundrett’s statement prompted environmental activist Jenny Morgan with Save Ohio Parks to submit a public records request for the data. Morgan then shared the data with FracTracker for analysis.

“Data show the total number of oil and gas incidents in the state, and their level of severity, has been grossly misrepresented,” FracTracker’s Midwest program coordinator Gwen Klenke said in a press release.

Most of Ohio’s incidents were in the eastern part of the state, and the three most affected counties were Washington, Muskingum and Noble counties, with over 70 incidents each. Athens County didn’t rise to the top in the data, but still saw more incidents than 75% of counties.

FracTracker removed about 100 incidents from its analysis of the ODNR dataset due to incomplete information, including locational data.

Most Athens County incidents involved a release or discharge of crude oil or gas, according to the Independent’s review of the raw ODNR data shared by FracTracker.

Three incidents involved what the ODNR described as a minor contamination of waterways, and about half involved contamination of soils. Four incidents — including two from 2019 — haven’t been resolved, requiring ongoing remediation work. 

Though most incidents were associated with operational oil and gas production wells, several oil and gas leaks in Athens County were associated with orphaned wells — abandoned wells that often pose environmental hazards.

Two incidents included in the ODNR data involved a release of brine, a toxic waste product from fracking. Brine may contain radioactive materials and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are linked to birth defects and increased risk of cancer, among other health issues.


Related coverage from the Athens County Independent:

One incident in 2018 involved an estimated “30’ by 300’ release of brine” from an apparently slowly leaking tank battery in Stewart. The release resulted in “several dead trees and brush as well as a large grass kill area” but no injuries, and no harm to water or wildlife, according to the ODNR data.

Another Athens County incident was a 2021 fire at an oil well in Amesville. While ODNR’s report said “we are uncertain as to how the fire started,” ODNR noted it had “visited site prior to this incident due to neglect by caretaker to get a leak fixed” which was allowing oil to spill down the hillside.

In a handful of Athens County incidents, ODNR determined the oil or gas released was not of a “reportable quantity.” One other incident was not substantiated.

Most investigations began after calls to the state’s Ohio’s One-Call Incident Notification, with others reported internally within ODNR.

All the Athens County incidents that were assigned a severity rating by ODNR were classified as minor. That’s not unusual — most incidents across the state received that classification, with only three incidents classified as major.

Ohio Oil and Gas Association President Brundett told Energy News Network that the limited prevalence of major incidents is “a testament to the industry’s rigorous safety standards and practices.”

However, hazardous materials expert Silverio Caggiano told Energy News Network that even one minor incident per week is still high, given that even minor spills often involve toxic materials.

Klenke told the Independent that ODNR’s classifications represent “kind of a big discrepancy in what ODNR is capturing versus what’s actually happening.”

“A good chunk of them are not actually minor,” Klenke said. 

To illustrate the point, Klenke pointed to one incident in the dataset: a Toledo house explosion that injured five people. ODNR categorized it as “moderate,” rather than “major.”

Klenke described ODNR’s data collection process as woefully lacking, overall. 

Most incidents did not require follow-up reporting, which Klenke said made it difficult to get information on most incidents beyond the limited narratives included in the ODNR’s dataset. Additionally, much of the data FracTracker initially received was inconsistent and incomplete, making it difficult to analyze.

In FracTracker’s report, the nonprofit said it was unable to identify documentation defining criteria for different levels of severity. Combined with the data’s other limitations, Klenke said that lack makes it difficult for anyone to evaluate the risks posed by the industry.

“There could be nothing to worry about in Athens County, but because ODNR reporting is so poor, [residents] cannot make that distinction for themselves, and neither can we,” Klenke said.

Representatives of ODNR and the Ohio Oil and Gas Association did not immediately respond to the Independent’s request for comment.

The post ODNR investigated 26 Athens County oil and gas incidents in last five years appeared first on Athens County Independent.

Ohio landowners say solar opposition groups threaten their property rights

A green sign yard sign with the words "Yes Solar" on a rural road in Knox County, Ohio.

A pair of cousins who want to lease land for a contested solar project in central Ohio say a vocal minority is trying to interfere with their property rights.

“I have rights as an owner, farmer and investor that shouldn’t be limited by a small group of individuals who are opposed to any solar development,” said Richard Piar. He and Ethan Robertson jointly own two parcels of property in Knox County, which they want to lease to developer Open Road Renewables for the proposed 120 megawatt Frasier Solar project.

Much of the public debate surrounding the project has pitted local groups that oppose solar energy on agricultural land against the developer and clean energy advocates. But for the cousins, the project is a way to bring in new revenue and help keep the land in the fourth-generation farm family. 

“Solar gives my family opportunities it otherwise would not have for a financial future,” Piar said.

Robertson is now seeking to intervene in the Ohio Power Siting Board case that will decide the project’s fate, and the cousins recently shared with Energy News Network how the project is important to them and their property rights.

“When someone who is not a farmer can tell us farmers what we can do with our land, it creates a slippery slope for property rights,” Piar said.

Concerns about conservation also factored into the cousins’ decision to lease the land, which the solar farm will have to restore at the end of the project. In Robertson’s view, those terms counter opponents’ arguments about blocking the project to protect farmland, especially when much of it – on the outskirts of Mount Vernon in Clinton and Miller townships, about an hour’s drive from Columbus – could otherwise become residential subdivisions.

“My children are nine, seven and five years old. This project is a key way to protect our land from the many ways this county may change over the next four decades,” Robertson said.

And much of the land in the Frasier Solar project will still be used for agricultural purposes while the solar project is in operation. On March 8, Open Road Renewables and New Slate Land Management announced they signed a letter of intent to use sheep grazing to manage vegetation for the project.

Brad Carothers, who runs New Slate, lives in Knox County and raises Katahdin sheep. When a letter came from Open Road Renewables about the Frasier Solar project, he reached out to the company.

“One of the main issues new and emerging farmers face is access to land,” Carothers said. “We’re a first-generation business. And so land is not something that I have from previous generations to utilize. And so this is how we can expand our business.”

Sheep grazing under a solar array at Oregon State University.
Sheep graze under a solar array in Corvallis, Oregon, operated by Oregon State University. Credit: Oregon State University

Why zoning isn’t the issue

Under Ohio law, a landowner generally gets to control who has access to real property and how it is used, including the right to lease it to others. Zoning can restrict some uses to certain areas, such as industrial or commercial activities. 

For electric generation facilities, however, state law and rulings of the power siting board generally take precedence, except as provided in Senate Bill 52, said Jacob Bryce Elkin, one of Robertson’s lawyers who is with the Renewable Energy Legal Defense Initiative at Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

The 2021 law lets counties ban solar projects from parts of their territory, but only if they were not already in the grid operator’s queue when the law became effective. 

“Frasier Solar clearly fits the bill to be grandfathered” under that exception, wrote Ohio Rep. Bill Seitz in a Feb. 23 letter urging the Ohio Power Siting Board to approve the project. Under the law, one county and one township representative will serve as ad hoc board members on the case.

Elkin also noted that while the Knox County Commissioners decided to ban wind farms in 2022, the same resolution said they would allow large solar facilities. So, because of SB 52, “if the OPSB grants the approval for the project, there’s nothing in local law that prohibits this project from being developed,” he said.

Yet when Knox Smart Development, an anonymously funded group opposing the solar project, hosted a program last month, speakers there talked about zoning and hypothetical situations that don’t apply to the solar farm case.

“For anybody preaching property rights, I always just like to ask them flat out: Does that mean you want to just ban or abolish all zoning?” said Jared Yost, a Mount Vernon resident who incorporated the group. Surely, he suggested at the Feb. 24 event, landowners wouldn’t want a chemical plant going in next door or sewage flowing into their yards.

Kevon Martis, a frequent opponent of renewable energy projects, took a similar tack, suggesting no one would want a 24-hour truck stop or adult bookstore next door – uses already governed by local zoning rules. 

“Everybody says, ‘I should be able to do what I want on my private property,’” Martis said. “And while they may mean that about them, they never mean that about their neighbors.”

A company official with Open Road Renewables was denied entry to the group’s Nov. 30 “town hall meeting” on the project. The group’s events have also denigrated the perspective of farmers and other landowners who will benefit from solar.

“In this project and a lot of projects like this, it’s easy for the supporters of the project to have their voices drowned out by a vocal minority of people opposing the project,” Elkin said.

Even aside from SB 52, zoning doesn’t let governments arbitrarily limit people’s use of their property, Elkin said. Instead, it needs to be rationally related to legitimate land use concerns.

“The onus is really on the opponents to put forward a case that’s grounded in fact, and they haven’t done that,” Elkin said.

What about the neighbors?

Filings by Preserve Knox County and Knox Smart Development in the Ohio Power Siting Board case claim the Frasier Solar project could interfere with adjacent owners’ property rights. And Robert Bryce, a former fellow with the Manhattan Institute, which has been linked to fossil fuel interests, claimed it was “BS” to think solar projects wouldn’t hurt property values in an area.

Among other things, Bryce cited a 2023 study in the journal Energy Policy by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Connecticut. The study team’s analysis of 1.8 million real estate transactions found, on average, a 1.5% impact on sale prices for homes within half a mile of a solar project.

However, data for the study ranged from 2003 through 2020, which wouldn’t necessarily reflect the current real estate market. The study also didn’t compare the effects on property values near projects with or without measures to prevent potential negative impacts, although the authors did note that developers or policymakers have various tools to employ, such as landscape measures or compensation for neighbors.

The Ohio Power Siting Board revised its rules for solar farms after the Berkeley Lab study came out. The rule changes require setbacks from property lines, homes and roads. The rules also call for “aesthetically fitting” fencing and other requirements.

Open Road Renewables also stressed steps it takes to accommodate nearby landowners.

“We offer good neighbor agreements at all of our solar projects, and they generally include some sort of compensation,” said Craig Adair, the company’s vice president for development. Payments compensate for periodic disturbances during construction, while also letting neighbors benefit financially from the project, he explained.

Payments also encourage many neighbors to cooperate by sharing drainage tile information. That helps the company protect against problems with drainage or even improve local conditions, said Open Road president Cyrus Tashakori.

Robertson, Piar and other potential lessors are not alone when it comes to valuing property rights in Knox County.

Resident Steve Rex said he attended a Knox Smart Development meeting, which he felt was one-sided and presented inaccurate claims. Property owners shouldn’t have to worry about what other people think about how they use their land, he noted.

Franklin Brown, another Knox County resident, took exception to solar opponents trying to limit the rights of property owners for the Frasier Solar project. “The same conservative people say, ‘Well, we don’t want government up in our faces,’” Brown said. “But oh, here they do?”

The Ohio Power Siting Board is supposed to use statutory factors to decide whether a project moves ahead, rather than the number of supporters or opponents. However, the board has referred to local opposition in some past decisions blocking solar projects. The board will hold a public hearing on the Frasier Solar Project on April 4 at the Knox Memorial Theatre in Mount Vernon. The evidentiary hearing is currently scheduled for April 29.

Ohio landowners say solar opposition groups threaten their property rights is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Is water from the Buchtel spring safe to drink?

BUCHTEL, Ohio — Every year, thousands of people stop at the Buchtel spring to enjoy the free cold water that pours continuously from three pipes into a concrete trough. It’s been around for as long as any resident can remember; according to legend, Morgan’s Raiders watered their horses at the trough during the Civil War.

The spring is nestled between two houses on Franklin Avenue, just off SR 78, with three parking spots for people who come to collect water. It’s public property and free for anyone to use; Mayor Tom Taggart estimates at least 25 to 30 cars stop at the spring every day. 

Taggart, who moved to Buchtel in 1959, says he doesn’t drink the public water that comes from Nelsonville,   which uses a Hocking River aquifer. All of his drinking water comes from the spring. Taggart said the water from the spring “just tastes a lot better.” 

“A lot of people you talk to in Buchtel, that’s the only water they drink,” Taggart said. 

The spring is fed by an underground lake — which is linked to the Jobs Mine No. 2 that Jobs Coal Co. abandoned in 1925. Over time, the water from the underground lake infiltrated the abandoned mine, said Natalie Kruse Daniels, director of the environmental studies program at Ohio University. 

The yellow and orange shaded areas represent the abandoned Jobs Mine No. 2 and the star is the location of the spring. Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Mines of Ohio map.

Unlike the city of Nelsonville’s service, the Buchtel spring is not an approved public water source, which would subject it to monitoring by the health department and Environmental Protection Agency.

“Nobody in the history of the spring’s existence has ever approached us to try to actually get that spring approved as a water source,” said Jack Pepper, administrator of the Athens City-County Health Department. 

Pepper said that on rare occasions people were admitted to the hospital with the same non-fatal waterborne illness, all of whom reported drinking from the spring. Pepper said those were the only times the health department tested the water. The health department must investigate certain diseases to identify a possible public health issue. These illnesses did not occur within the past 5 years.

But Pepper said that in the 20 years he has worked for the health department, it has only tested the water “two, maybe three times.” Even after testing the water from the spring, the department could not make a definitive connection between the illnesses and the water. 

“There are lots and lots of people that use it, and they use it consistently and they don’t get sick,”

Pepper, a lifelong Athens resident, said.

Pepper said the health department keeps records of the tests for 5 years before they are removed from the system, so the results of testing before 2019 are unavailable.

What’s in the water?

Buchtel is a small village spanning just above 300 acres with 518 residents, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Taggart describes Buchtel as an easygoing, retired community and a place where you know your neighbors. Prior to the 2000s, Buchtel residents generally did not have municipally provided water and sewer, rather relying on cisterns and septic.

“I won’t drink out of the tap — I don’t know if I ever drank out of the tap,” said Libby Watkins, 74. “We didn’t have running water when I was young, city water didn’t come up the street until I was in high school. So, we would go to the trough and get our water.”

Some Buchtel residents are more worried about the water they get from the city of Nelsonville than from the spring. Bruce said he doesn’t drink Buchtel’s tap water because he believes there are too many chemicals in it. 

“I hate to even shower in it,” said Rodney Galentin, a former Buchtel postmaster and local historian who cares for artifacts in the village’s Coal Miner’s Museum. 

They’re not wrong to worry. Annual consumer confidence reports indicate that the city of Nelsonville struggles to maintain acceptable levels of trihalomethanes, or TTHMs — by-products of drinking water disinfection. 

Consuming water with extremely high levels of TTHMs over a long period of time can cause liver, kidney, reproductive and central nervous system problems as well as an increased risk of getting cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

But is the spring water any safer?

As an unapproved water source, the spring is not tested for contaminants by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the area is part of the Monday Creek watershed. The Ohio Watershed Data, a project of the environmental studies program at OU’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, monitors the watershed.

Kruse Daniels said that the test results from 2010 and 2011 show that the water had high levels of sulfate and elevated specific conductivity, or the water’s ability to carry an electric current — indicating a high level of dissolved materials, which can affect potability. It also had a pH value below 6.5, making it slightly acidic. Together, she said, the results indicate that the water has been affected by mining. 

But every water test is a snapshot in time, reflecting the season, the weather, size of the water pool and flow, Kruse Daniels said — OWD’s data is more than 10 years old.

To get more recent data, I collected four samples of the water between November 2023 and January, and tested them for pH and specific conductivity levels at OU’s environmental science lab. 

There is no enforceable health department standard for specific conductivity, but higher specific conductivity levels may cause water to have an unpleasant taste or smell, or aesthetic issues — but health implications are uncommon, according to The Ohio State University. In the case of this water source, a higher specific conductivity indicates the presence of nitrate, sulfate and/or other ions. 

Edward Abbiw, the lab’s coordinator, reported that the test results were consistent with mine-influenced water, just like the older ones from OWD.

Abbiw noted that two of the water samples were collected after heavy rain, which likely infiltrated the water source and diluted the sulfate levels. If all samples were collected during dry weather, he said, sulfate levels may be higher.

Kruse Daniels said those results do not indicate any health risks from consuming the spring water — but she didn’t give the water a clean bill of health. 

“My biggest concern with that is that we don’t measure for things like E. coli or fecal coliforms,” Kruse Daniels said. She said bacteria, such as E. coli, are regularly tested for and treated in approved water sources. E. coli indicates water contaminated by animal or human fecal matter and it can cause severe gastrointestinal illness.

“Without having data on the waterborne pathogens, it’s really hard to say anything about the safety,” Kruse Daniels said. She added that mines, especially shallower ones, have a connection to the surface and bacteria could infiltrate the water.

New water line project

In May 2023, the Ohio EPA approved Nelsonville’s application for funds from the Water Supply Revolving Loan program for water system improvements. Part of the project aims to resolve the ongoing issues with TTHMs. Another aim is installing new water lines to Buchtel, which until recently was served by a single outdated water line, with no backup supply. Outages left residents with no access to public water and occasionally caused the Nelsonville-York High School to close, according to the Ohio EPA’s Limited Environmental Review.

Construction on the new service line has yet to be announced, but the Ohio EPA expects construction to be completed by July 2024.

But while the new service lines will provide improved water quality and distribution, some residents likely still won’t drink from the tap. For Buchtel residents like LIbby Watkins, the spring is more than a water source; it’s part of their community’s identity. 

“I hope it’s always there,” Watkins said.

The post Is water from the Buchtel spring safe to drink? appeared first on Athens County Independent.

Invisible Ground historical markers merge past and present

The brick church stands against a blue sky.
A QR code Invisible Ground marker on the sidewalk.
Photo provided by Brian Koscho.

ATHENS COUNTY, Ohio — What began as Brian Koscho’s Ohio University graduate thesis is now eight interactive, immersive historical markers that bring local history to life. 

With more markers on the way, these spots showcase local history — often transcending Appalachian Ohio with ties to historical moments nationwide — and time itself. 

Through the Invisible Ground project, Koscho creates immersive, augmented reality historical markers that include ground plates with QR codes where one stands for optimal usage. Users can scan the QR code using the Invisible Ground app, then use their phone’s camera to see historical images overlaid on the present view. 

For example, users can see the Athens County Courthouse steps packed for a 1912 visit by Theodore Roosevelt, or the Albany Enterprise Academy superimposed over the empty field where it once stood.    

Each spot also includes — or will soon include — a sign with the QR code and historical information. The app also provides audio recordings with more information on the sites.

In the first episode of his local history podcast — also called Invisible Ground — Koscho asked, “What do you lose in a story when a building is gone?” 

“I think you lose a lot, and I think there’s a lot of different ways to look at that question,” Koscho said. “As you start diving into these things … you start to realize those points of connection [are] tied to bigger national things. … And so you lose, in that case, a whole voice and a whole part of the community’s history.”

The loss of structures often is tied to the loss of the people who built and used it, Koscho noted, such as the forced removal of Ohio’s indigenous people and for Black Americans. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the thing is still there, because the community is not there anymore,” Koscho said.

That makes looking at specific places all the more important, whether a structure remains or not, he said. Even if a building remains standing, its stories may not have survived.

“The building is the obvious big thing – it’s the physical thing on the landscape. It’s not a story. It’s not made up. It’s actually there,” Koscho said. When a structure is gone, “it’s not ever going to be back. And the only thing you can do is try to keep those stories.”

Although he has a passion for history, Koscho recognizes that his enthusiasm isn’t universal. Part of his work, he said, is making other folks interested in their local history, the dirt beneath their feet — hence the novel augmented reality app. 

“How can I make people in — especially in a crowded world of things vying for their attention — how can I make someone just as excited about these things … [as] I do when I just read about it,” Koscho said.

Koscho believes that each of the eight sites are all “places that offered important threads and stories that not only were important here, locally, and regionally, but that also had huge connections outward.”

The Independent visited each of these sites. Here’s what to know: 

Markers in Athens

  1. Soldiers and Sailors Monument

Ohio University College Green, near Union and Court streets

Ground marker location: East Union Street sidewalk, just east of the Alumni Gateway

Historical photo screenshot.
Provided by Brian Koscho.
A small sign on a telephone pole.
The historical marker stands across the street from the monument. Photo provided by Koscho.

Erected in 1893, the monument commemorates the 2,610 Athens County residents who served in the Civil War. Among them was Milton Holland, the freed son of a Texas slave who earned the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm in 1865. 

“I think he’s the most important Civil War veteran from here,” Koscho said. “You could actually make the argument that we wouldn’t have won the Civil War, if it wasn’t for what he did.”

Koscho also noted how “evident” the monument is on the landscape, often a background in Ohio University student photos. 

  1. Athens County Courthouse

1 S. Court St.

Ground marker location: Court Street sidewalk near Chase Bank opposite the courthouse; historical marker near courthouse entrance doorway

The courthouse entrance door next to the historical marker on the brick courthouse exterior.
Next to the Athens County Courthouse entrance is an Invisible Ground historical marker.

“Most people think that it’s the original courthouse, but it’s really the third one,” Koscho said. “The first one is the cabin that’s across from the football field.”

The existing courthouse indirectly tells the stories of the other two, Koscho explained. 

“It’s the second building … that would have been the one that Andrew Jackson Davison practiced law in for the first time,” Koscho said. “The second courthouse — before the one we have — is the one where Christopher Davis was held, and then taken from and taken down the street and lynched.” 

  1. The Berry Hotel

Formerly 18 N. Court St.

Ground marker location: Court Street sidewalk outside Lucky’s Sports Tavern

A diner now stands on the site of the Berry Hotel on Court Street, just up the hill from the State Street intersection. African American entrepreneur Edward C. Berry and his wife Mattie established the hotel in 1882, making them the only Black business owners in the city. The hotel hosted many renowned guests, including U.S. presidents. It was demolished in 1974.

Scanning the QR code will display several images of the Berry Hotel, which Koscho calls “one of the most beautiful buildings in all of southeast Ohio.”

  1. Mount Zion Baptist Church

32 W. Carpenter St.

Historical and ground markers location: In front of the church on East Carpenter Street

Although the Berry Hotel is long gone, the Mount Zion Baptist Church still stands. For Koscho, the church stands strong, despite the risk of “very much not being there.” Through community support and dedication, the church has survived the tests of time and is currently under renovation. 

  1. Athens Asylum, “The Ridges”

OHIO Museum Complex and Kennedy Museum of Art, 100 Ridges Circle

Ground marker location: Flagpole near the stairs that connect parking lots in front of the Kennedy Museum; historical marker coming soon

An image of the Ridges overlayed at the Kennedy Museum present day.
An image of the Ridges overlayed at the Kennedy Museum present day, using the Invisible Ground app. Screenshot by Keri Johnson.

Scanning the marker on the flagpole produces two images of the Ridges’ past. A sign with the asylum’s history is coming soon.

A historical image of a fountain displayed at the Ridges.
Provided by Brian Koscho.

Markers in Athens County

  1. Albany Enterprise Academy 

5533 Fire Department Lane, Albany

Historical and ground markers location: Empty lot on Washington Road near the Albany Volunteer Fire Department

The Albany Enterprise Academy was one of the more important facilities for early Black education in American history. Founded in 1864, the academy was the first educational institution created and run by Black Americans. Among its students were the son of Edward C. Berry, Milton Holland, and Olivia Davidson, an education activist who married Booker T. Washington. In addition to educating formerly enslaved people, the academy served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

“You have all these important people pass through locally and regionally and nationally, and it’s a huge, important thing,” Koscho said. “And there’s a giant Black community and all, but at the time. That’s not something that exists at all anymore — both the academy and the people in the community, right?” 

  1. Coal Mining in Chauncey 

Chauncey Community Park, 8433 W. Bailey Road, Millfield

Historical and ground markers location: Near the shelterhouse close to the playground

The Chauncey Invisible Ground marker may be one of the project’s more striking historical markers. What was once an area for coal mining is now the Chauncey Community Park, featuring a playground, shelter houses and a skatepark; it’s also the trailhead for the Baileys Trail System. Scan the QR code and look across State Route 13 and toward the skate park for photos.

  1. Tablertown 

Marker location: Kilvert Church, 21120 McGraw Road, Stewart

Ground marker coming soon

The Tablertown marker is still in progress, with internet connection being set up. However, the marker tells the story of the historic Black community, now called Kilvert. It describes Tablertown’s founding and how its history has been preserved through oral tradition, specifically through the work of Tablertown descendant David Butcher, who curates the nearby Tablertown People of Color Museum. 

For more information — on the sites and stories — visit findinvisibleground.com, listen to the podcast episodes and visit the historical markers (map available on website).

The post Invisible Ground historical markers merge past and present appeared first on Athens County Independent.

Ohio restricts transgender rights

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sweeping new restrictions on rights for transgender youth are coming to Ohio in April, with further restrictions on the horizon for transgender people of all ages. 

On Wednesday, Jan. 24, the Ohio Senate voted to override Gov. Mike DeWine’s veto of House Bill 68, which will ban transgender healthcare for Ohio youth and bar trans girls and women from participating in school sports. This followed a Jan. 10 override vote by the Ohio House. 

When DeWine initially vetoed the legislation earlier this month, he proposed his own rules to restrict transgender healthcare. 

Jessie Hill, a legal expert with Case Western Reserve University, previously told the Independent that both HB 68 and DeWine’s draft administrative rules invite litigation, which could ultimately block or stall portions of the law from taking effect.

Earlier this week, the ACLU of Ohio announced a lawsuit against HB 68’s ban on gender-affirming care for youth.

However, Hill previously described the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Ohio, as “hostile to trans people.”

Despite legal challenges, Republican state legislators are pursuing even further restrictions on transgender rights. 

At a small online gathering of Michigan and Ohio Republican legislators to discuss future policy, HB 68’s primary sponsor, Rep. Gary Click, recently said it was a “very smart thought” to ban transgender healthcare for everyone, regardless of age, independent journalist Erin Reed reported. Click added, “We have to take one bite at a time, do it incrementally.”

Youth healthcare

HB 68 will prohibit transgender minors in Ohio from accessing gender-affirming care, including hormone replacement therapy and puberty-blocking medications. The bill also requires mental health providers to notify parents or guardians prior to providing treatment for a “gender-related condition.”

The bill allows minors already prescribed hormonal treatment or puberty-blockers in Ohio to continue their care. Still, at least 100 Ohio families with transgender members plan to leave the state as a result of Ohio’s anti-trans legislation. 

Local professional counselor and Rock Riffle Wellness Co-Owner Mosha Trout, who specializes in working with queer youths and whose business follows World Professional Association for Transgender Health standards, said she’s seen firsthand the fear and discomfort HB 68 has incited in her 22 clients this past week. She described the legislation as “destabilizing” to her clients’ mental health. 

“I wish … the people that had the power that made this happen, I wish they would have just sat with me, with my families, with my clients, and just watched us in therapy — to see the harm that was actually caused,” Trout said. 

For Trout, what is now important is to stress that care is still available — there are professionals ready to jump through hoops to get clients the care they need, whether it be counseling or a referral out of state.

“There’s several clients … they have this fear of, ‘I’m never going to be able to start this process, because now there’s this block,’ and I want that to be debunked,” Trout said. 

Trout also voiced concerns about the potential for a chilling effect on queer youth.

“It’s the silence that keeps people in the closet — like families in the closet — it’s like, ‘We can’t speak because now we have to hide,’” Trout said. 

Trout recommended affected parents and families consult the Ohio: Resource Guide on HB 68 by the Campaign for Southern Equality

Trout said, “I’ve been planning for this, so it is not going to change my work. I think the way that it will change is the referral sources I’ve had.”

Regarding the healthcare portions of the bill, Athens City Schools Superintendent Tom Gibbs said in an email, “those are decisions and discussions outside of what a school would be directly involved, with the exception of the parental notification requirements now imposed on school psychologists, counselors, etc. … We are awaiting specific legal guidance on those matters.”

Gibbs added, “These changes and restrictions will certainly have very negative impacts on the specific students and families targeted by the law, a very small population that is already marginalized in schools and society as a whole. … While I am not at liberty to speak for our entire Board of Education on these matters, I know that several of our Board Members and Administrators, including myself, have significant concerns about the negative impacts for specific children we serve.”

Sports

The bill also forbids transgender children from participating in sports with children with whom they share the same gender identity. It separates children’s sports by “sex,” with the exception of co-ed teams. The law also forbids complaints “against a school or school district for maintaining separate single-sex interscholastic athletic teams or sports.” 

In reference to the restrictions on athletics, Gibbs told the Independent in an email, “for those specific students impacted, I can only imagine this change will cause significant stress.” 

Gibbs previously told the Independent transgender students have participated on school athletic teams in Athens City Schools “and there have been no complaints or issues of which I am aware.”

Gibbs said, “There are legal questions, yet to be answered, that center around the apparent conflict between Ohio’s new statute and Federal Title IX Guidance. I would expect that the legal representatives for each District are reviewing those apparent discrepancies and will be providing additional guidance to us as we get closer to the implementation date of the new law.”

Other Athens County superintendents did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Hill, the Case Western legal expert, previously told the Independent she expects legal challenges to athletics restrictions in HB 68 based on Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination by schools that receive federal funding. However, Hill said it is currently unclear if Title IX would offer legal protections for transgender students in the context of school sports.

Asked to comment on the bill’s impact on OU students and athletics, OU Media Relations Specialist Sam Pelham told the Independent, “We are currently reviewing its potential impact on existing University policies, procedures and processes before it officially becomes law.”

Hocking College did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

HB 68 was sponsored by Athens County representatives Jay Edwards (R-94, Nelsonville) and Don Jones (R-95, Freeport). Edwards previously told the Independent the bill was necessary because “minors should be protected” from gender-affirming healthcare, and cisgender girls “should be protected” from transgender girls “competing against them in sports.”

The 2024 Democratic candidate for Ohio Senate District 30, Ari Faber, who is trans, and the Democratic candidate for Ohio House District 94, Wenda Sheard, both previously shared their opposition to HB 68.

Restrictions on care for people of all ages

When DeWine vetoed HB 68, he signed an executive order banning gender-affirming surgeries for minors in Ohio, despite the fact that no such surgeries were being performed in the state. 

He also announced draft administrative rules that would broadly restrict healthcare for transgender people of all ages by setting up many more hurdles for both patients and providers. 

Although the administrative rules were proposed in part because DeWine vetoed HB 68, his press secretary Dan Tierney said the legislature’s override vote will not impact the proposed rules.

“The Governor and the administration plan to proceed with the rulemaking process,” Tierney said in an email. “Some of the rules cover policies not addressed in HB 68. Other aspects of the rules would be triggered if HB 68 is enjoined by lawsuit.”

If the rules go into effect as they are currently written, Ohio will have some of the most restrictive regulations on transgender healthcare for adults in the country.

The rules would:

  • Require healthcare providers to report data regarding gender-affirming care for transgender people to the Ohio Department of Health, and require the data to then be shared in aggregate with the state legislature.
  • Require hospitals that provide gender-affirming healthcare to engage a board-certified psychiatrist and endocrinologist in the patient’s care.
  • Require hospitals to create a “written, comprehensive, multi-disciplinary care plan” for patients receiving gender-affirming care, which is reviewed by a medical ethicist. 
  • Require that patients younger than 21 years old receive “comprehensive mental health evaluation at the hospital seeking to provide treatment” over a period of at least six months.

The public has until next Monday, Feb. 5 to submit comment to the Ohio Department of Health on DeWine’s proposals. The new rules would collect data “addressing gender-related conditions and treatment” and provide it to the General Assembly every six months, and restrict gender-affirming healthcare for people of all ages. Comments may be sent to ODHrules@odh.ohio.gov.

Tierney said DeWine’s administration will soon publish “amended rules that reflect the results of the public comment period.”

“While we are not yet at a point where I can discuss specific changes, the administration takes the public comment period seriously and respects those who participated in the process,” Tierney said.

Restrictions on transgender healthcare for adults are unusual in the United States, with proposed laws regulating such care having failed in multiple states. With these administrative rules, Ohio would join Florida in restricting transgender healthcare for adults.

DeWine’s proposed regulations are so extensive that, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, they could constitute a “de facto ban” on any and all gender affirming healthcare for all transgender Ohioans.

At minimum, the regulations would likely require significant staffing and procedural changes if hospitals continue providing gender-affirming treatments such as hormone replacement therapy, health researcher Kathryn Poe previously told the Independent

Such restructuring would pose a financial burden for health systems and could potentially prevent smaller providers in rural and suburban areas from offering care at all, given the multiple providers required to be involved in patient care, Poe said previously.

Equitas Health’s Director of Marketing Communications Anthony Clemente told the Independent the Ohio LGBTQ+ healthcare provider stands by its previous statement that it will “jump through whatever administrative hurdles we need to jump through to continue providing gender-affirming care to our patients and to avoid any disruptions in care.”

Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio President and CEO Erica Wilson-Domer told the Independent, “Gender-affirming care is still available for adults at all 15 of our health centers, including the Athens Health Center, and online via telehealth through our Virtual Health Center. We are proud to provide high-quality gender-affirming care to adults in our communities, and we will continue to do so in accordance with Ohio law. Currently, we are working on ensuring we can continue to provide this critical care to patients in compliance with all legal requirements.”

Following the public comment period on the rules and the release of amendments, the rules would need to be approved by Ohio’s Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review.

Tierney said he expects “final rule approval within several months.”

Note: This story has been updated to include a quote from Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio President and CEO Erica Wilson-Domer.

The post Ohio restricts transgender rights appeared first on Athens County Independent.

After its college closes, a rural community fights to keep a path to education open

FAYETTEVILLE, Ohio — Ghosts populate the campus of Chatfield College.

They’re in the fading photos on the library walls of students who, over 177 years, attended the college and the boarding school from which it sprang, and of the Ursuline nuns who taught them, in their simple tunics and scapulars.

Amid seemingly endless acres of tobacco, soybean and wheat farms in a village in southwest Ohio with a population of 241, the now-closed college sits at the end of a narrow entrance road flanked by Bradford pear trees, colorless and bare in the winter gloom. Just about the only traffic on the way is an occasional stray chicken.

Chatfield has been shut down for a year now, though the buildings and grounds remain so neatly tended that they look as if they’re ready for the students to return. It’s among a fast-growing number of closed colleges in rural America, stripping communities of nearby higher education options to which young people can aspire and eventually go.

In this case, however, something unusual has happened: The assets left by the defunct college are being used to help at least some local students continue their educations past high school.

It’s a story that underscores the role played by colleges and universities in rural America, what’s lost when they close and how advocates are trying to keep the proportion of rural high school graduates who go to college from falling even further than it already has.

“It was a really great starting point for me, and it could have been a starting point for other students,” said Anna Robertson, 23, who attended Chatfield until the end.

Related: Rural universities, already few and far between, are being stripped of majors

Locals once saw greater potential for the college, which was founded in 1845 as a boarding school by an English-born Ursuline nun named Julia Chatfield. In the early 20th century, it benefited from being close to U.S. 50, a heavily trafficked major east-west route. And in 1971, it evolved into Chatfield College, which conferred two-year associate degrees.

“It was the heart of the area,” said Amber Saeidi Asl, who grew up next to the campus. She took courses offered by Chatfield through a dual-enrollment program while she was still in high school, and eventually went there.

Just having a college nearby inspired her to go, she said.

“The people of the area really wanted a college,” Sister Ellen Doyle, president from 1986 to 1997, said in a video history.

“A lot of kids that wouldn’t otherwise go to college felt comfortable coming here,” Mary Jacobs, a Chatfield graduate who later worked as its director of finance, said on the video. “If it hadn’t been for this college, a lot of them wouldn’t have attended college at all.”

But the interstate highway system long ago supplanted U.S. 50. Even the village where the college was located, St. Martin, was dissolved in 2011, when the population had dwindled to 129; the campus was absorbed into Fayetteville.

Like other small, rural, tuition-dependent and religiously affiliated institutions, Chatfield grew even more imperiled as Americans increasingly questioned the cost and value of postsecondary education. There are only about 80  two-year private, nonprofit colleges left, fewer than half as many as just 30 years ago.

It’s also in a part of the country that has been among the most acutely affected by a decline in the number of high school graduates and their interest in going to college. The number of students in Ohio’s public high schools slid by 7 percent from 2012 to 2022, and the percentage of them going directly to college fell to 53 percent by 2020, the most recent year for which the figure is available — nearly 10 percentage points below its peak, and well below the national average of 62 percent.

Related: MIT, Yale and other elite colleges are finally reaching out to rural students

Even though Chatfield accepted everyone who applied, and charged a comparatively low $14,080 in tuition and fees, it was down to 129 students in its last semester, according to federal data. Nearly half took their classes exclusively online.

With an annual budget of around $4.5 million, the college lost $373,520 in 2020 and $850,202 in 2021, tax records show.

“We could see the enrollment trends,” said Robert Elmore, Chatfield’s last president. “We just didn’t see how we could sustain this and continue operating.”

Robert Elmore, the last president of now-closed Chatfield College. “We could see the enrollment trends,” says Elmore. “We just didn’t see how we could sustain this and continue operating.” Credit: Grace McConnell for The Hechinger Report

So the school announced in the fall of 2022 that it would shut down at the end of that semester, taking 70 jobs with it. It barely made the headlines. But it had joined more than a dozen other private, nonprofit universities and colleges in rural areas or that serve rural students that have closed or announced their closings just since 2020.

Those include Nebraska Christian College, Marlboro College in Vermont, Holy Family College in Wisconsin, Judson College in Alabama, Ohio Valley and Alderson Broaddus universities in West Virginia, Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, Iowa Wesleyan University, Marymount California University, Cazenovia College in New York, Finlandia University in Michigan, Presentation College in South Dakota and Lincoln College, Lincoln Christian University and MacMurray College in Illinois.

Nearly 13 million Americans now live in places, mostly in the Midwest and Great Plains, where the nearest college or university is beyond a reasonable commute away, the American Council on Education reports. The nearest colleges to the Chatfield campus — a community college and a branch of the University of Cincinnati — are about 45 minutes away.

Related: A campaign to prod high school students into college tries a new tack: Making it simple

“For a lot of college students who are living in rural areas, it’s just not feasible to drive to one of the city universities,” said Robertson.

Helping overcome those kinds of obstacles is now the purpose of the nonprofit set up with the remaining Chatfield College endowment, which Elmore put at $4 million; the organization also claims the grounds and buildings as assets, valued along with the endowment at $11 million.

Called the Chatfield Edge, it has provided volunteer mentors, career counseling, assistance with admission and financial aid applications and other help to 21 students, and scholarships of about $1,500 per semester to 19 of them, said David Hesson, director of programs, who was an associate dean at the college.

David Hesson, former associate dean at Chatfield College and now director of programs for a nonprofit helping rural students continue their educations. “They don’t think they can do it. It’s unknown.” Credit: Grace McConnell for The Hechinger Report

It’s not only about getting students to college; the Chatfield Edge will also help with trade school and certificate programs. The target is low-income high school students who would be the first in their families to go to college and students who are older than the traditional age. Robertson, who now is finishing her bachelor’s degree at Asbury University in Kentucky, is among the beneficiaries.

“We said we don’t have to necessarily provide the education. But we could support them, and we know what that looks like, and we have the scholarship money to cover the gap,” Elmore said.

Other than Hesson and Elmore, the only employees left are a facilities director and the director of development. They work in the onetime student center. “We’re the whole gang,” said Hesson as he held open the door for some rare visitors. An Ursuline sister, Patricia Homan, has an office in a separate, otherwise empty building, and spends time in the library compiling an archive of the college’s history.

The small number of students it has helped so far speaks to the challenges faced by the Chatfield Edge and other organizations promoting access to college and other education after high school for young people growing up in rural places.

“A lot of the kids I knew grew up to do what their parents did,” said Saeidi Asl, who now volunteers as a mentor. “If your parents were farmers, you became a farmer. If your parents were truckers, you became a trucker.”

Related: Often overwhelmed on big campuses, rural college students push for support

That was not the case for Destiny Jones, who also was at Chatfield when it closed. “I didn’t think I was going to do well in the workforce without an education,” Jones said. “I’m a person who needs to be told how to do something.” Plus, “it was going to lead to a higher-paying job.”

Jones, who is 21, was speaking at a daycare center where she works during breaks to help make money for tuition at Mount Saint Joseph University in Cincinnati, which she now attends on her way to getting a degree in art education and becoming a teacher.

Going to Chatfield was much easier. “I didn’t feel like I had to stress about not being able to get there,” she said. Now, at Mount Saint Joseph, “I definitely get pretty homesick, especially in the middle of the semester.” As someone who is close to her family, “I didn’t want to be away.”

Destiny Jones at the daycare center where she works to help earn money for tuition. Jones attended Chatfield College until it closed and now goes to Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati. Chatfield’s very existence “made people think about college because it was close by,” Jones says. Credit: Grace McConnell for The Hechinger Report

Chatfield’s very existence, Jones said, “made people think about college because it was close by.” Still, many of her high school classmates didn’t go. They took “blue-collar jobs, working in restaurants, doing mechanical work, construction — anything they can get their hands on.”

Rural high school graduates are far less likely to go directly to college than their suburban counterparts, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center — 56 percent, compared to 62 percent, respectively. That’s down substantially in just the last three years.

A big reason for that is a lack of confidence, said Hesson. “They don’t think they can do it. It’s unknown.” And without a college close by, “you lose accessibility.”

Related: Aging states to college graduates: We’ll pay you to stay

Rural students who do go to college generally prefer to stay close to home, research shows.

Robertson, for instance, had never driven on a highway before Chatfield’s closing forced her to transfer to her Kentucky university, nearly two and a half hours away, which has 1,395 undergraduates.

“She said Asbury is such a big college, and I cracked up, because it’s not,” said April Houk, a Fayetteville resident who is Robertson’s volunteer mentor. “She was kind of like a deer in the headlights.” So Houk sent her a bouquet of flowers and some words of encouragement at the beginning of the school year; two weeks later, Robertson had joined some extracurricular clubs, found a friend to study with and was majoring in equine science with plans to become a veterinarian.

April Houk, who lives on a farm near the now-closed Chatfield College. Houk has become a volunteer mentor for a rural student being helped by the Chatfield Edge, a nonprofit that succeeded the college. Credit: Grace McConnell for The Hechinger Report

Still, Robertson said, she misses having a college closer to home, which was also cheaper, since she could commute. Her new life “is a pretty different experience,” she said, “because I’m living away from home for the first time. It’s a much bigger campus. There’s more of a sense of anonymity. It can be a little lonely.”

Small rural colleges are more supportive, said Homan, the Ursuline nun and archivist, who also went to Chatfield and later worked there and at a tiny branch campus in Cincinnati that has also closed. “I was the cheerleader,” she said. “I found students if they didn’t show up. If they didn’t have bus fare, we would help them with that.”

Her experience of working in the area “is that the older generation says, ‘I don’t have a college education and I did fine.’ Students aren’t looking for a college education. It is not the aspiration.”

Many, when they’re older, find they do need one, however. That was the case for Jackie Schmidt, who got her associate degree at Chatfield and went on to a successful career as an office manager and accounting manager before helping start a contract manufacturing company. When she was laid off — “I was 54 and had the rug pulled out from under me” — she found “the jobs I thought I was qualified for required a bachelor’s degree.” But “I was intimidated at this age to be going back to school.”

Jackie Schmidt, who went to Chatfield College and now is returning to school for a bachelor’s degree at 56, with help from a nonprofit, the Chatfield Edge. “I was intimidated at this age to be going back to school,” Schmidt says. Credit: Grace McConnell for The Hechinger Report

Schmidt, now 56, found her way to the Chatfield Edge and with its help enrolled in an online bachelor’s degree program in business administration.

With rural colleges closing, she said, “I worry because not only for kids just getting out of high school but adults who decide they want to go back to school — what avenues do they have?”

Chatfield College created a sense of community not only for its students, but for the surrounding township, said Houk, who lives a mile from the campus on a 1,300-acre farm. Her husband’s grandmother worked there as a cook, and Houk went to summer camps at Chatfield and was married in the chapel. “We loved this place,” she said. “It really has a lot of history.”

She looked around at the all-but-abandoned campus. “It almost makes you emotional — the integrity it brought to the community.” Even though it’s no longer operating, she said, “I still say, ‘I live one mile from Chatfield College at the stop sign.’ It’s sad to have it gone.”

Without the college, “We lose that educational opportunity and the gifts that these young people have if they were educated,” said Homan, who is now on the board of the Chatfield Edge and Schmidt’s mentor. She, too, looked around the campus. “Oh my gosh, it’s quiet. But it lives on. It does. I know that.”

This story about rural higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

The post After its college closes, a rural community fights to keep a path to education open appeared first on The Hechinger Report.