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October 23, 2018

3/9/2018 1:53:00 PM
Public makes many suggestions on solar array rules

A handful of proponents of  renewable energy lent their voices to the debate at a county planning commission public hearing March 1, on amending the county’s permits for solar arrays.  Far more people, however,  showed up to contribute concerns about the proliferation of solar arrays, as the seven-member planning commission undertakes a re-write of the county’s solar  permits ordinance.

State utility regulators handle permit review for large solar array sites of 50,000 kilowatts or greater.  If a solar energy system requires a high power transmission line of more than 1,500 feet in length, or which will carry 100kv or more, the state also regulates these “route” permits.

What falls under the permits  overseen by Chisago County are further separated into two sizes here.  The code now regulates sites larger than 20 acres as a full Interim Use Permit and sites with array footprints covering fewer than 20 acres approved by staff-- as “administrative permits.”

The county has been held up as a role model by energy associations and government groups as a leader in its accommodations for these smaller “community solar” installations.  The ordinance is only about two years old and recently;  citizens concerned about shortcomings inherent in the process came to the county to improve the ordinance.

These smaller arrays used to be called “solar farms” but public disdain for that term has resulted in officially using “solar energy systems” to describe the projects.
Citizen pressure on the county board resulted in county commissioners directing the county planning commission to look into recommending new wording.   The planning commission public hearing last week attracted a couple dozen attendees.  

Chisago Lakes Middle School science instructor Pat Collins said when he moved here-- his road was a quiet gravel country lane.  Now it’s paved, it’s busy and noisy and he doesn’t like it. But, people have to have roads, he continued. Things change.  Likewise, Collins said we can not keep generating energy through fossil fuel consumption. Solar is renewable.  It is not affecting climate patterns. He asked the audience to consider what this generation will ultimately hand off to the next generation and learn to accept solar panels in farm fields.

Dann Adair said he lives nearby the 1,000 acre “North Star,” solar energy system and slightly smaller “Aurora” array, and he looks at these as positives.  Use of pesticide and herbicide, soil loss, and noise and smell associated with agricultural practices are gone as cooperative landowners are able to earn a living now leasing or having sold to solar developers.  

He said, “I know we all love our greenspace and farms,” but he commented that a solar array is not the worst thing that is possible on empty land.

The entire permit ordinance was not addressed last week. though,  because the planning commission threw a wrinkle into the process. It voted 4-3 to eliminate the staff-approved permits altogether.

Planning Commission Vice Chair Chris DuBose made the motion to discontinue administrative solar energy systems permits-- at any acreage-- declaring all arrays should be treated as Interim Use Permits (IUP).  

The IUP review and notice would address citizen complaints about lack of transparency inherent in the county’s current administrative permit portion of the ordinance.  An  IUP involves a public notice and the planning commission reviews every aspect of each project.  DuBose, McCarthy, Yeager and Froberg passed the motion.
Planning Commission Chair Frank Storm, David Whitney and John Sutcliffe were not prepared to disallow staff-approved applications.  Whitney noted that the commission had already developed a consensus to reduce the maximum staff-permitted array size to 10 acres, from 20 now.  

Planning commissioner Whitney said if county planning commissioners can agree on standards for the sites, like screening, buffering, setbacks from adjacent properties etc. why can’t staff rely on those standards for a template to deny or approve the smaller array sites?  There are so few of these permits processed administratively, he said.

DuBose countered that this is exactly the point.

He said applications might just as well be county responsibility,  adding,  “The county (planning commission) is doing 90 percent anyway.” (Based on already approved permit sizes.)

The planning commission got into a protracted discussion about whether to mandate permit review aspects to townships.  

Another ordinance revision being debated is requiring informational meetings between the project developers and neighboring property owners. 
This was proposed to remedy complaints that the existing process doesn’t allow for input by neighbors.

Commission member James McCarthy said the official record (findings) leading up to a decision on a permit is too important to leave application review up to non-county officials.

A solar industry representative in the audience also said developers are not eager to be responsible for calling and holding, probably tape-recording and transcribing,  any public meeting.

McCarthy argued it is the county’s job to oversee and maintain the record on permit fact-finding and testimony collection.

Commissioner Jim Froberg asked if anybody had contacted the townships, to see if they welcome new duties.  He said township supervisors had asked to be NOTIFIED of applications for permits but he didn’t think this includes taking an active role.

County Zoning Administrative Asst. Tara Guy said cities and townships got letters asking for feedback on the proposed solar energy systems’ ordinance amendments.  The City of North Branch provided the only official response.

The planning commission met approximately  two hours-- even reviewing plant materials for array site screening, to help alleviate visual impacts from the systems.
The meeting ended with a recommendation for staff to re-write the ordinance as conceived so far-- eliminate administrative permit powers-- and draft new references to “standards” to be applied.    The Planning Commission meets again April 5 and the draft wording could be gone through again at that time.

In the meantime the group of citizens who are most actively pursuing new wording plans to visit with the County Board March 21.  

The group considered asking the county commissioners to enact a solar array moratorium until the ordinance can be revised, (Press January 18) but did not.  There is a renewed concern the wording of an acceptable ordinance will be delayed and that new applications could be filed in the interim.  

One array project application that was filed before this all began has advanced to a public meeting stage.  

On Wednesday, March 14 at 6 p.m. the Olinda Trail Solar LLC 11 acre site, on the Wagner parcel,  is being reviewed.  The meeting will be at Franconia Township Hall 25156 St Croix Trail (on Hwy 95.)

According to the MN Department of Commerce the year 2017 was a major growth year for solar in the state. As of December 2017 there were a total of 94 community solar sites in the state.  Chisago County is home to over 20 of these solar energy systems.  

Xcel leads all power distribution companies with about 400 megawatts of community solar currently in design or under construction,  and 282 MW capacity now, according to the state Dept of Commerce.

Chisago County is an attractive solar systems development locale-- due in part to the major electric grid crossing down from Canada to the south end of the state.  Chisago County has electric substations where solar-generated energy can interface cost-effectively with the entire midwest grid. Chisago County also has farmland that’s in-transition, and open, sunny fields make desired sites for solar arrays.


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