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July 18, 2019

6/27/2019 4:00:00 PM
Chisago City extends solar array moratorium; city council says solar ordinance unacceptable

June 18, the Chisago City Council voted four-to-one to extend a moratorium on solar garden construction for an additional six months while debate continues on the city’s solar energy ordinance. Without the extension, the initial six-month moratorium would have expired June 20. Councilman Mark Anderson cast the lone no vote.

Anderson, who serves as council representative on the city planning commission,  tried to convince fellow council members to reconsider voting for the modified solar ordinance approved by the planning commission instead of extending the moratorium. The planning commission’s version of the ordinance previously failed to gain council approval after Mayor Bob Gustafson expressed his opposition.

The decision to extend the moratorium came after a public hearing where the council heard citizens speak for and against stronger ordinance provisions. Solar developers called the city’s latest proposals “overly burdensome.”  The solar developers expressed a desire to work more closely with the city but said the city’s latest proposals had been drafted without any collaboration. “We’re here to work with you,” solar developers said.

In its latest discussions, the city had proposed requiring 1,000-foot setbacks from Highway 8 rather than 750 feet, and earthen berms with two rows of pine trees for screening purposes. Also under consideration was requiring two permits, one calling for the screening to be completed by the developer before a permit for the solar garden itself could be obtained.

Proponents of solar gardens described the facilities as “clean, passive, quiet and efficient energy which benefits in a cost savings to the consumer and which is going to make the city money.” They also explained that solar gardens “will not be built willy, nilly all over Chisago City” as they can only be built on a property which has access to Xcel’s distribution facilities.

One couple made an emotional plea, saying that if the 1,000 foot setback was enforced their property would no longer be feasible for a solar garden. “These punitive regulations will get in the way of private landowners benefiting from this opportunity,” they said.
Jerome Henton, who owns land across from the proposed solar garden, said, “I feel we should definitely have a 1,000-foot setback…100 percent. I don’t care if they build it, but I don’t want to see it.” Henton added that he favors berms the height of those used at Peterson Companies’ property on County Road 22.

Loren Peterson, whose property is at the heart of the proposed solar garden area, reminded those present how use of his land had changed over the decades dating back to 1880 when the railroad first crossed the family’s property.    “Years ago, the railroad went through the farm. They told us, this is the best use for this land. In 1977 they brought in the big power lines on my neighbor’s land and then mine and said ‘This is the best use of your land.’

He continued, “Then recently it came to my attention that my 80 acres is in the prime position for solar development. It has access to the three-phase power lines that cross County Road 22.

“I’m 75 and I’d like to retire. If I could put solar there for 25 years, it could fund my retirement. Now, all of a sudden people tell me that it is not the best use of my land. My plea to the council is this:  I looked up other communities that have taken a more positive approach to this. Rather than Chisago City being the community that hates solar and doesn’t welcome it here, look at Rosemont and Cottage Grove. They did overlays and identified acreage that would be prime for solar development. We have solar developers standing in the wings and saying they’re willing to spend a million dollars, and we’re saying ‘We don’t like solar.’ My land will not be seen from Highway 8. It’s off County Road 22. Those power lines are already there. Most people think those power lines are ugly. Will putting in a solar garden there make the power lines uglier?” he concluded.

Council heard solar is becoming more and more efficient. They’re talking about shutting down coal-fired and nuclear plants to go with renewable energy. Chisago City should be part of it. The city should identify a solar corridor and actually invite solar developers to come here and spend millions of dollars to build these in a pleasing way.

Peterson asked for a spirit of collaboration. “I don’t want to be the bad guy here…to be on the outs with the council is not to my benefit. I would rather work toward a harmonious solution rather than zone solar energy out of existence.”

T.J. Ozomoru of ITS Solar told the council, “The City of Wyoming had the exact same concerns. There was a moratorium but instead of coming to the conclusion ‘We will not have solar in the City of Wyoming,’ they identified an area for solar.”

Responding to the audience, Councilwoman Marie Rivers said, “I don’t know why everyone thinks we hate solar. We just want to be sure that it looks decent, and that the solar gardens are appropriately decommissioned.”

Mayor Gustafson added, “I’m trying to protect the city from any more additional expenses. Our job up here is to put forward an ordinance that will work, and will protect the city in the future.”

The council closed the meeting by agreeing to meet with the solar developers and affected property owners at a workshop session that will follow the regular June 25 council meeting.  Councilwoman Rivers asked that maps be provided at the workshop meeting showing the areas where solar gardens are proposed and can be built in relationship to the power lines. “When we sit down to talk about this we need to have a map in front of us,” said Rivers.

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