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December 11, 2019

11/21/2019 3:32:00 PM
Chisago City passes amended solar energy ordinance, moratorium ends

After months of debate, the Chisago City Council on Nov. 12, passed a resolution for a new, and more stringent, solar energy ordinance as part of the city’s zoning code.

The new ordinance provisions take effect on publication in this newspaper, officially ending a yearlong moratorium on new community solar garden projects within the city. Solar developments can now proceed, as long as the projects meet the new, stricter, ordinance requirements.     
The revised ordinance includes larger setbacks from public roads, strict screening requirements, up-front developers’ agreements and letters of credit with inflationary provisions. Mandatory setbacks for solar arrays are now 350 feet from the centerline of a city street, 750 feet from a county road, and 1,200 feet from the center line of Highway 8.

Mayor Bob Gustafson, described the ordinance as a case of “you win some and you lose some,” as he continued to seek conditions right up to the moment the final vote was taken.

In the end, the mayor lost his bid to require 12-foot or higher earthen berms around all solar energy projects. The mayor said repeatedly throughout last week’s meeting that the eight-foot high berm, established as a minimum in the new ordinance, was inadequate. “I don’t know of any field around here where an eight-foot berm would hide a 12-foot solar panel,” said Gustafson.

That argument failed to sway fellow council members who maintained that a berm higher than eight feet can be required on a case-by-case basis if needed to provide adequate screening.

In the end, however, the council did modify the ordinance to require that an eight-foot earthen berm plus two rows of four-foot high trees and one row of shrubs be provided “on all four sides” of a solar project, not just on sides facing a public road as discussed previously.
The mayor’s insistence that solar energy installations be screened from public view became a key factor throughout the council’s months of deliberations. The new ordinance now states ground-mounted Solar Energy Systems “shall be fully screened at the time of planting from neighboring residents and public right of way.” The word fully is underlined in the ordinance document.

Although the mayor lost his bid for higher berms, he won his argument for prohibiting ground-mounted solar units at private residences—no matter how large the lot. Per the amended ordinance, solar installations at private residences in Chisago City must be roof-mounted.

During the Nov. 12 meeting, Councilwoman Marie Rivers had suggested the possibility of allowing ground-mounted solar for private residences on lots of 10 or 15 or more acres. In the end, the mayor rallied support for his position when Councilman Jeremy Dresel said that homeowners with larger acreages could usually find places for roof-mounted solar units on auxiliary buildings if trees obstructed their roof from sunlight.

The new ordinance also requires developers of Community Solar Energy Systems to enter into a developer’s agreement with the city, and to submit a decommissioning plan for removing equipment and restoring the property when energy production ends. The cost of decommissioning must be secured by a letter of credit or an escrow account that includes an inflationary escalator approved by the city and its engineer.    

After the mayor made one final, unsuccessful plea for berms higher than eight feet to screen solar arrays, the revised ordinance on Solar Energy Sources and Systems passed on a roll call vote. Council members Rivers, Dresel, Craig Meyer and Louis Anderson voted aye before the mayor cast the final vote.

Mayor Bob Gustafson then voted aye “reluctantly,” saying he still believed the screening requirements to be inadequate, adding, “I hope I’m wrong.”

In other business before the council:
- Two residents who came forward during the public comment period at the beginning of the Nov. 12 meeting pleaded unsuccessfully with the council to allow ground-mounted solar at private residences and to reduce the mandatory setbacks from roads for solar gardens. Neither plea was successful as the council later voted for more stringent requirements.

- The council set a public hearing and “second reading” of an amended rubbish removal ordinance for the Nov. 26 council meeting. The city’s current rubbish removal ordinance contains a five-year license agreement that expires on Dec. 31, 2019. City Administrator John Pechman informed the council that currently licensed haulers have indicated they would prefer rubbish removal licenses to be continual. The amended ordinance clarifies language to allow for license renewals.

It was also recommended that license fees for rubbish haulers currently listed in the ordinance instead be listed, and more easily changed, in the city’s annual fee schedule and be referenced in ordinance. A copy of the proposed amended rubbish removal ordinance is available for viewing at city hall.

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