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October 23, 2018

4/13/2018 11:50:00 AM
Planning Commission sends County Board two solar revisions

The Chisago County Planning Commission couldn’t decide on one revised solar permit ordinance draft to recommend to the County Board; so members voted last week to send two ordinances.

County ommissioners now have the final say April 18.  One ordinance allows for administratively-issued permits for solar arrays of less than 10 acres to continue.  The second ordinance subjects all sizes of arrays to the full Interim Use Permit process.

The planning commission has held a number of well-attended meetings on revising solar array permit when complaints surfaced-- especially in the Taylors Falls-Franconia region of the county-- as arrays have proliferated.  Residents went to the county Environmental Services department to complain about the county zoning staff’s ability to issue “administrative permits” for smaller solar array projects, under 20 acres.  Over the course of public input the 20 acres was recommended to go down to 10 acres.  

Then, in March the planning commission passed a motion directing staff to draft a new solar array ordinance discontinuing administratively-issued permits.  Administrative permits did not include public notice or public meetings and citizens felt blind-sided having no knowledge of these projects until work would begin on-site.

Citizens also asked for better screening requirements to be imposed on project sites, public notification to the townships for all projects, and they sought increased visual protections by increasing setbacks (distance) of arrays from dwellings and roads.

Some in the public want permitting for acres of solar panel facilities to stop altogether.  Franconia Township has scheduled a special public hearing April 12 to review taking over its own land use administration and imposing a moratorium on solar-energy generating projects while investigating this step.  There are debates on the township’s authority to impose a halt to permit activity that it does not control.  Chisago County currently provides land use services such as code writing and enforcement and permitting.

The ambiguous action by the planning commission, sending two solar permit ordinances to the County Board, was due to discord on the planning commission over administrative permits.  The vote was 4-3 split between three members who support letting staff issue some permits and the four who have already voted to eliminate administrative permits.  

In a March vote the planning commission directed staff by majority to draft a new solar ordinance minus administrative permit options. The directive was to create new wording from the public input at prior meetings and make ALL solar array projects subject to the full Interim Use Permit process.

Chris DuBose, planning commission member asked why a draft ordinance was on the agenda for review, revising administrative permits,  when the commission already voted to disallow these.  The observation was left unanswered.

Commission member James McCarthy motioned to forward a “majority report” and a “minority report” to the County Board and let the county commissioners decide. The sticking point remains keeping administrative permits or not.

Planning Commission Chair Frank Storm, John Sutcliffe and David Whitney opposed the motion. Whitney was the only one of the three to comment-- saying the recommended new standards for Interim Use Permits should not also be mandatory of administrative permits. He felt including staff-issued permits in the IUP requirements makes the staff-approved permit too onerous.    

McCarthy, DuBose, Jim Froberg and Chip Yeager voted yes on letting the two revised ordinances go to the County Board as-is.

After the planning commission meeting ended  Environmental Services Director Kurt Schneider was asked about the importance of administrative permits.

Schneider said in the process of writing county rules on solar array projects, staff agreed solar energy facilities don’t present the usual causes for irritating the neighborhood like noise, new traffic, junk storage, late hours of operation, or any of the usual concerns associated with commercial businesses enterprises the staff have had experience with.  The Interim Use Permit process brings each situation to the planning commission to set conditions that can address these concerns ahead of time. It wasn’t felt that solar arrays need that level of scrutiny, he said.

Plus, solar energy developers found the permit process more predictable and stable when staff could grant permits to smaller arrays.

There is no state law that requires the county to provide permits administratively, he said, but it has been allowed as a local authority  



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