BY GABE LICHT
FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, MN Three solar gardens are being proposed in Franklin Township, and the Franklin Township Board voiced their disapproval for two of them during the March 7 meeting.
The properties in question were 3527 Highway 12, referred to as the Perry property, and 11345 Co. Rd. 17 SE, referred to as the Hajas/Krajewski property. A third property that was not on the agenda, but was referenced several times throughout the meeting, abuts the Woodland Hills Winery on Wright County Road 30.
After more than 90 minutes of discussion, Chair Dewayne Bauman made a motion to disapprove of the rezoning the Hajas/Krajewski property “because the property owner is not present, there’s not enough information, too many residents disapprove of future solar use on this property, and the township is considering a moratorium for time to gather more information.”
Regarding a conditional use permit for a solar garden on the Perry property, “the township is concerned with solar zoned as agricultural property,” according to the township response form that will be sent to Wright County. “Two supervisors disapprove because of the loss of agricultural land. One supervisor approves because it would have an industrial park on one side. Many residents are opposed.”
Now, the Wright County Planning Commission will consider both requests during a meeting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 17, at the Wright County Government Center (10 Second St. NW Room 140 in Buffalo).
As residents asked questions and voiced dissatisfaction over solar gardens on these properties, supervisors encouraged them to take their concerns to the county level.
One concern many people, including the supervisors themselves, had about solar gardens was how they are zoned.
“In a lot of discussion up there, they had talked about those properties being commercial, so I think there’s some confusion,” Bauman said.
“That’s commercial application,” one resident said. “There’s no ag involved. There’s no plants being grown. It’s a business, and it should be zoned commercial. Everything I do in my business, I have to pay commercial taxes, and they have to pay commercial taxes, too.”
Gerardo Ruiz, who was representing Minnesota Solar LLC on behalf of Potentia Energy, pointed to state statute that allows counties to zone solar gardens as agricultural. He also clarified that solar gardens are charged a production tax on top of property taxes.
Bauman asked Ruiz why his company hadn’t come to the township sooner, considering Minnesota Solar LLC was required to file for an interconnection permit with Xcel Energy before Sept. 25, 2015, in order to qualify for a five-megawatt solar garden, compared to the one-megawatt solar gardens permitted after that filing deadline.
“We are in the early stages,” Ruiz said. “We’ve had communications with your township in a preliminary fashion. Now, we’re saying the CUP (conditional use permit) has been submitted (for the Perry property). We’re coming back saying, ‘Where do you folks stand? What do we need to do?’”
Ruiz was asked about the potential danger of stray voltage.
“Stray voltage won’t electrocute anyone,” Ruiz said. “It’s a phenomenon of there being a defect in electrical installation . . . If you build properly, there should be none or nearly zero . . . These are engineering problems that can be measured. The smart thing to do is test for it. If there’s a problem, you solve it.”
Concerns about stray voltage turned into a conversation about maintenance.
Ruiz said the electrical components will be monitored remotely and maintained.
“By looking at the performance, we’ll know if there’s a problem or not,” Ruiz said.
Ground maintenance is another aspect being considered.
“If you put proper, low-growth, native grasses in there, it will be maybe once or twice a season you keep that down,” Ruiz said. “We’ll be hiring it out. We’re not grass or weed people.”
Mike Dickerman, the owner of Woodland Hills Winery, told Ruiz his grapes are very susceptible to chemicals.
“What are you going to do to control weeds but not use chemicals, so you don’t kill my crop?” Dickerman asked.
“We can’t put chemicals in the ground, period, regardless of who the neighbor is,” Ruiz said. “We’re starting to get advice of people who do this. They’re going to grow things that are A: not going to require chemicals, and B: allow land to be reused for agriculture if that is indeed what happens after 25 years.”
Dickerman also asked Ruiz about fencing.
Ruiz said his company prefers 7-foot-tall chain-link fence with barbed wire on the top, but noted that is not allowed in every county.
As was the case at an earlier meeting, the topic of setbacks was addressed. While Wright County requires only a 60-foot setback, Ruiz said his company is open to hear neighbors’ concerns and increase those setbacks to 125 feet, for example.
He also said solar gardens are required to have a decommissioning plan, with bonding or escrow in place to pay for it, after the 25-year contract is up. That contract can also be extended in five-year increments if the parties involved agree to the terms.
Ruiz noted the solar panels come with a 25-year warranty and are expected to operate at about 80 percent capacity at the end of those 25 years.
When asked where the panels will come from, Ruiz said, “There is a good chance it will not be a US manufacturer,” noting that many Asian-based manufacturers are also considered in the “top tier.”
When a resident said manufacturers are “using nonrenewable resources to make these panels,” Ruiz pointed to the primary materials used in solar panels: highly graded silicon, aluminum, and glass.
“Part of the decommissioning plan has to do with being able to recycle that material,” Ruiz said.
While not an investor himself, he classified the solar industry as a good investment, with major banks investing in it.
Subscribers share the benefits of the solar gardens. Before a solar garden is created, it must be 100 percent subscribed, and Ruiz said his company’s solar gardens are 87 percent subscribed. Minnesota Solar’s subscribers are businesses. By law, they must be in the same county, or a contiguous county, of the solar garden.
As the conversation wound down, all supervisors voiced disapproval of a solar garden on the Hajas/Krajewski property, while Supervisor Mike Barfknecht said, “I think the Perry property fits very well because it’s by the future industrial park. On the other two pieces of land, there needs to be more time. That’s how I look at it. If we need to put a moratorium on it, I’m all for it.”
Supervisor John Czanstkowski Sr. was the one to suggest a moratorium, pointing to a similar moratorium in Buffalo Township, and two other townships considering moratoriums. His opposition was based on feedback from township residents.
“The people I’ve talked to, and the ones who are here, don’t want it,” Czanstkowski said. “I think more revenue and jobs are created when crops are grown . . . Here, it appears this money is going to Canada, or wherever.”
In related business, the board reviewed a proposed amendment to the county’s solar garden ordinance, regarding solar gardens on restricted parcels of land. Due to confusion over the possibility of those properties being zoned agriculturally, the board asked for clarification, and Czanstkowski said he would contact the county for said clarification.
Odds and ends
In other business, the board:
• approved a bid of 84 cents per gallon for 100,000 gallons of magnesium chloride, for a total cost of $84,000, from Quality Propane for dust control. The board also received a bid of 86.9 cents per gallon of magnesium chloride, for a total cost of $86,900, from Envirotech, and a bid of 94.948 cents per gallon of calcium chloride, for a total cost of $94,948, from Northern Salt. The board agreed to solicit bids for both magnesium chloride and calcium chloride in 2017.
• gave support to a request from Luther Workman to rezone 4784 50th St. SE from agricultural general to agricultural residential. The rezoning will need to be approved at the county level.
• approved a temporary on-sale liquor license and gambling permit for the Church of St. Mary of Czestochowa’s July 17 annual church festival.