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October 19, 2018

2/9/2018 3:34:00 PM
County Board should see revised solar rules soon

Review of the county’s solar array site permitting ordinance made some headway last week; with planning commission members meeting for about an hour with the sole topic on their agenda, an outline of concerns that citizens have brought forward.  Planning Commission Chair Frank Storm said the group should expect to see the final written ordinance at its March meeting and be prepared to hold the public hearing then.  

The County Board could act on the new solar array permit ordinance as soon as the recommended amendments come from the planning commission.

Planning Commission members, with James McCarthy absent, agreed last week to recommend to the County Board that the administrative permit threshold decrease to 10 acres, half the existing trigger now for a solar array project to go to the public in a full blown Conditional Use Permit process.   

Members Chris DuBose and Jim Froberg wanted to go to even fewer acres allowed under staff control and voted no.  DuBose commented that anything seven acres or more “...is still a good sized project, anything over five acres should come here.”  

Until the County Board acts on the language revisions;  County zoning staff now have the authority to administratively approve or deny solar arrays presenting less than a 20 acre footprint. (This is not the parcel size it is the actual layout of an array of panels.)

There will also be notification required for any size of solar array permit project, the planning commission will recommend.  Notice will go to property owners within a quarter-mile of the array site and to the affected government unit.

Township officials have argued the 20 acre cut-off for administratively authorized permits-- which don’t require notice-- left them blindsided and feeling they have no input.

Anything over the 10-acre threshold are also now being recommended to be handled as “Interim Use Permits.”  

IUPs legally may include limits that the CUP format doesn’t...such as expiration dates for a land use.

Tara Guy, county zoning, told the planning commission another major citizen concern the department is aware of is improving screening, lessening the visual intrusion of arrays.

The planning commission members agreed the street side of any array should include a buffer of at least four foot tall evergreen trees.  The edge of an array parcel adjacent to where there’s a dwelling that can see it,  will require two rows, with six foot evergreen (coniferous) trees.  Evergreens will be mixed with deciduous-- and when there’s already vegetative growth on the perimeter the planning commission will encourage it be preserved and will “credit” a developer with existing screening.

Setbacks were to be enhanced in the ordinance language revisions.  

The planning commission did not give detail to final setback standards but consensus was that array setback from a parcel (without a dwelling) should be 50 feet at least, from the boundary line.  A neighboring parcel with a dwelling should get a 200 foot setback, starting from the shared property line. Staff was going to put final numbers into the ordinance for the public hearing.

There is an active application for a solar array permit, where design is already being finalized on Olinda Trail, and developers  are working with Chisago County staff to address new array standards.  The noticed public hearing date for this project has been published but delayed indefinitely.  

Solar developers are open to adjust the footprint anticipating an amended ordinance being adopted, Kurt Schneider, county environmental services director told the Press.

The planning commission briefly mentioned taxes, addressing members of the public who have complained that the arrays do not benefit the county’s tax base.

Staff member Guy explained completed arrays shift the property into “vacant farmland status” as the sites stay ag-zoned but are not in crops or pasture any longer.  Taxes increase slightly under this classification, but she said the issue is “irrelevant for land use purposes” as tax law it is not under the county’s legal ability to change, she added.

There will also be some word-smithing between now and next month on the planning commission members’ expressed concern for wildlife corridors potentially being disrupted by too many arrays, with fencing, in any one area.  

Standards may require breaks in fencing or sections of open space under certain concentrations of array coverages.

And, citizen concerns about the land beneath the arrays are already addressed, staff reported.  

Steve Putman, zoning code enforcement, explained the county ordinance already mandates using “pollinator friendly” planting or seeding,  and Minnesota noxious weeds are defined and controlled by law and eradication is pursued. Putman said, “We enforce this countywide, regardless of the use.”
The planning commission also directed the county commissioners to express the county’s gratitude for Craig Mold’s years of service for District 5 on the planning commission, with a signed letter.  Storm moved and now resides in Commissioner Mike Robinson’s fifth district and was seated to succeed Mold.

Storm’s former spot was filled by Charles Yeager, Wyoming. 

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