12/11/2017 10:40:00 AM Citizens call for solar array permitting changes
Chisago County has worn its reputation for being known as ‘solar capital of Minnesota’ proudly, but the glow has worn-off for a group of landowners in the south end of the county. Approximately 25 to 30 citizens attended what ended up being a two-hour sit down with zoning officials and County Commissioner Rick Greene last week, to air concerns over proliferating solar array sites.
Most own land in County Commissioner Greene’s district, but there were people attending with addresses in other commissioner districts as well. Franconia Town Board Chair Supervisor Dennis Gustafson was also present.
The informal session was organized by Angel Phillips Permaloff, who said she is a relatively recent resident and acknowledged she has probably not been involved in local political issues to the degree that she should.
The goal in arranging this confab, she explained, is to move forward with changing solar-related ordinances to better reflect concerns arising from numerous, smaller solar array installations. (Major solar arrays, like North Star near North Branch, are regulated by the state Public Utilities Commission and Dept. of Commerce and permitting is not under local control.)
Permaloff said she started looking into local regulations on solar land uses and saw policy statements in the county comprehensive land use plan that don’t “jive” with what’s actually being applied to solar arrays.
County Environmental Services Director Kurt Schneider commented that the county planning commission just completed a Comp Plan review, and in short order it will turn to making sure ordinance wording reflects the plan. The audience members were welcomed to engage in that upcoming process.
The public hearing fee, to reword an ordinance, starts is $571. Zoning staff member Tara Guy said she would be happy to help the group navigate making a formal request for the county planning commission to start the process. Town Board Chair Gustafson announced he will ask supervisors to use township funds for the fee.
Zoning Director Schneider observed that with so little of actual land mass involved, the current solar arrays don’t approach any definition of “saturating” the south-of-Lindstrom area, which was one of many resident concerns. But, John Chrun responded that the ordinance must contain a limit on numbers of acres allowed to be in solar in any identified area. His thought is that when it reaches a saturation point (apparently where everybody agrees there’s just too many panels in one area) there won’t be any teeth for the county to legally cap solar applications. “If you don’t set a saturation level, you leave the county open to a lawsuit when the next developer comes along and you say no,” Chrun predicted.
Schneider responded it’s understandable why these neighbors perceive solar as rampant. There have been four recent projects underway or completed, and staff is aware of a couple more pending in the general corridor along Olinda Trail South.
Some attendees asked ‘why here, why now?’
There are multiple reasons the region is so attractive, said Schneider: ~ Easy access to substations connecting into the midwest’s regional power grid. This is Xcel Energy territory and Xcel is encouraging renewables subscriptions, through billing credits, which helps support the financial viability of these smaller solar “gardens.”
~ Community solar gardens are defined by Chisago County as 20 acres or smaller. (where people can buy into solar systems without having to physically place panels on their property) The state legislature authorized solar gardens in 2013. There is a federal government incentive package making solar investment attractive that is set to sunset in 2019.
Xcel is operating under a state mandate to buy power generated by renewables. Xcel must have 31.5 percent of power that it distributes generated by renewables by 2020, and 1.5 percent must be solar.
~ Another factor is a declining local farm economy.
Schneider said local solar projects all involve willing landowners agreeing to divest of tracts. Local farmers Ron and Sue Johnson, owners of a multi-generation dairy farm near Olinda Trail, said solar developers had approached them for acres. Ron said he can see why landowners enter into solar uses, because farmland can’t be leased for crops anywhere near what the revenue is from say, a 25-year solar contract.
Johnson did express concern that one of the key drivers in solar policy-- that the lesser-desireable crop land be targeted first for solar -- is not being followed. Corn yields per acre in the south end, where these fields are being used for solar sites, are almost twice what yields are in and around North Branch-Rush City, he remarked.
Another attractive factor for solar in Chisago County, and the main reason this meeting was called, is the local code. Chisago county ordinances allow staff or “administrative” approval for small projects 20 acres or less. This simplifies solar garden development but also has left citizens feeling the permit project lacks transparency. Schneider explained that a request for a land use, like solar arrays, which is expressly allowed in the county agriculture zone, only need administrative approval. The administrative level application doesn’t trigger public hearings, or notices to be mailed.
A solar project larger than 20 acres would trigger the Conditional Use Permit process and a hearing, with notices. Any add-ons to existing small solar arrays resulting in a combined project area of over 20 acres triggers the CUP. (The 20 acres is the footprint of the panels, not the parcel size.)
A Conditional Use Permit process may provide the opportunity to put conditions on; but the possible conditions need to be revised as well. Bonnie Quigley suggested the solar array that she will be looking at daily, ought to be required to go inside of a depression, with large trees on top of a tall berm, surrounding the excavated area. This would at least mitigate the visual pollution. She added, she has nothing against renewables and has even planned a personal solar power system which she conscientiously situated on her own property.
Eric Eckman, living adjacent to an under-development project, said he realistically expects to spend thousands of dollars to build up the edge of his abutting border, and add a buffer of trees, as he moved here to be able to hunt and enjoy the country.
He said, “I only hope by us coming here to this meeting, we can help the next residents who may move in.”
Contractor Ray Tetrault noted that he obtained a CUP for his home-based business and, “...it wasn’t painful.” Meeting attendees agreed verbally that all solar projects should be required to receive a CUP.
Gary Lindblad added that giving notice to surrounding property owners of pending array requests is the main thing to him.
Commissioner Greene was asked if the County Board would support a moratorium on solar applications while the rules are under review. He said he can’t speak for the whole Board. He added this solar array land use is “...all new to us and we did the best we could.”
Stafer Guy said regulations can be a fluid, dynamic document and the county has always been quick to work with people who have concerns to achieve a good outcome, while also not violating state property rights and land use laws.
Schneider said staff will tabulate all the remarks and concerns and inform the planning commission. As soon as a formal request is filed “the county is obligated to respond” and an ordinance public hearing and review could start. Also, he noted that citizens need to let elected officials know of concerns so they can make informed decisions.