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January 21, 2018

1/12/2018 2:59:00 PM
Solar ordinance revision attracts dozens to hearing

Approximately 70 to 80 people showed up braving sub-zero temps last week,  to get the conversation started at a public hearing on solar collection sites and what’s good and what’s bad about them.  

The County Board has directed the county planning commission to review an ordinance that has allowed staff to grant permits for solar array sites of less than 20 acres.  There have been many citizens who made it known to policymakers they need to change this process.
Township supervisors want to get notified at the very least, when a permit is being submitted so they aren’t left in the dark, said Sunrise Supervisor Jeske Noordergraaf last week.

County Environmental Services Director Kurt Schneider estimated there’s been six or seven administrative-authorized array permits.  There are two sites with permits, that are larger than 20 acres maximum,  which underwent a Conditional Use Permit process-- and one array site requiring a CUP process is pending.  (These are the only permits under the authority of the county.  Lent Township oversees its own zoning and is also reviewing solar garden applications and the ultra-megawatt solar sites,  like the 800-acre North Star array are under permit the authority of the MN Public Utilities Commission .)

Citizen Loren Caneday disputed the county’s very definition of the smaller solar arrays as “gardens” or “Farms.” He said last week they should all be referred to as industrial energy generation facilities. He also wanted the opening statement of the county ordinance, where it declares local political support to make every effort to address alternative energy, eliminated;  saying this blanket statement is “stacked against the public” and too pro-solar energy.

Others who testified said the ordinance standards for the staff-approved solar sites need beefing-up.  Bonnie Quigley and Sue Esch, for example, said they support solar power but there must be visibility buffering rules,   vegetative screening requirements, and restrictions for use and maintenance of the site soil, especially the noxious weeds that farmers have to control but that solar sites don’t seem to have to.

Franconia Township Supervisor Dennis Gustafson suggested there be a density standard developed.  Arrays should not inundate one area of the county just because three-phase power is available,  due to regional power grid electric substations nearby.

He supports, at the very least, that applications submitted for the smaller arrays need to be publicly noticed and neighbors must receive notice.

Stanchfield residents Linda and Mike Gallagher asked that the planning commission be deliberate in revising the ordinance,  and not take the county “backwards” from its policy to accommodate solar energy.  Mike said there are ever-growing technological demands for electric power and wind turbines  “...can’t go up just anywhere” and dams are not being built anymore, and nuclear waste disposal still is unaddressed. He concluded, “Solar is a great option.”

Rural Shafer resident Paul Dennison pointed out the (dairy) agriculture infrastructure and number of farmers is dwindling here-- and those who want to get revenue out of their acres by leasing or selling to solar developers need to be allowed to do so.

Schneider explained that the planning commission members did not enter into the hearing last week expecting to take any action right-away and this could be a lengthy process.  Commission members will get additional information such as maps of array locations, do site visits,  and get copies of letters that were submitted for the hearing. The commission members will have further discussion on the next meeting agenda.  The Planning Commission meets again February 1.

The role of the Planning Commission is to develop a recommendation for the County Board regarding the ordinance language. The Planning Commission holds input hearings and creates the public record and presents its “findings” for Board action.

There is a new member for  Commissioner Ben Montzka’s district.  Charles ‘Chip’ Yeager was seated last week.  Frank Storm, previously representing Wyoming,   shifted to Commissioner Mike Robinson’s fifth district as he recently bought a residence there. and the former commission member had stepped down. Other Planning Commission members are Jim Froberg, David Whitney, John Sutcliffe, Jim McCarthy and 2018 Chairman is Chris DuBose.  The non-voting liaison to the County Board is County Commissioner Rick Greene.

 DuBose noted in closing the meeting -- there did not seem to be any urgency to adopt a moratorium on solar arrays while the ordinance is reviewed.  There have been only a few sites processed so far and just one is pending, but he added that the planning commission could use some special meetings to expedite ordinance reviewal in general,  related to aligning code with the updated Comprehensive Plan. Staff said they would work on scheduling a workshop session calendar.

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AnnMarie Brink - US Bank

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