BY GABE LICHT
INDEPENDENCE, MN Representatives from Ecoplexus will need to find a new location for a 40-acre community solar garden after the Independence City Council approved a more restrictive solar energy ordinance on a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Marvin Johnson and Councilman Steve Grotting opposed.
Following the vote on the ordinance the Independence Planning Commission recommended, which limits solar energy production to roof-mounted systems or ground-mounted systems no larger than 500 square feet, the council voted unanimously to deny Ecoplexus’ request to amend the city’s ordinance to allow community solar gardens as an accessory or conditional use in the agricultural zoning district. The request came with a promise to pay up to $500,000 to pave Nelson Road if approved.
City Attorney Bob Vose said the council would need to vote on a written denial of the request, which will be on the agenda for a special meeting at 7 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3. Per state statute, the city had 60 days to respond to Ecoplexus’ request, which was submitted in December, 2015, but Ecoplexus had granted an extension until Monday, Aug. 15, and attorney Peter Beck said the company would have been willing to grant another extension if the city needed to review the request further.
Councilman Brad Spencer said he saw no reason to table the matter.
“We’ve spent as much time working on this request as any other,” Spencer said. “We should have enough information in front of us to make a decision.”
Johnson was the first individual to speak against the planning commission’s recommendation.
“I feel this is very discriminatory,” Johnson said. “What we got is a few people trying to dictate what looks good and what doesn’t look good in the city of Independence . . . I think we need to be extremely careful with how we develop this ordinance because government is not the end of all things. Private property owners have rights.”
Councilwoman Lynn Betts said members of the planning commission had done their due diligence when drafting the ordinance.
“They’ve done a good job,” Betts said. “It’s been open to our citizens. While I agree with you, Marvin, about government, we have to realize government is people. The people who live in this community have made it clear what they’d like to see and they’ve put us in a position where we’re responsible to them.”
Councilman Ray McCoy took a different approach to the issue with the same outcome.
“I’m not saying I’m against solar farms, but I really have a hard time with picking out that we specifically will allow solar farms, but not allow other opportunities for landowners of large tracts of land to leverage their investment and generate additional income than what they can generate off ag,” McCoy said. “I don’t like picking and choosing. I think it should be addressed with the comprehensive plan coming up in a year or two.”
Grotting said he believed there could be a compromise to appease both the applicants and those opposed to community solar gardens. When pressed on his opinion of the ordinance, he said, “I don’t accept the ordinance in its current state. I think it’s a little austere. I don’t know if we’ll get anything different if we send it back to the planning commission.”
Spencer said he understood the benefits of solar power, but called himself a creature of the process.
“I have enough respect for our planning commission that I am typically going to take their recommendation,” Spencer said. “Having been at every planning commission meeting that heard this, they did a very good job of hearing public comment.”
Twenty individuals signed letters in support of the ordinance the planning commission recommended.
Residents LuAnn Brenno and Lynda Franklin voiced their opinions during the meeting.
“We have a right to say what we want the city to look like,” Franklin said.
“I think (the planning commission) looked at, ‘What do we want in the city?’” Brenno said. “Many citizens testified. The vast majority of them do not want solar gardens in our city . . . I think you’re giving short shrift to the people who testified and provided information to the planning commission, and the work the planning commission did to work through this and come up with what they think is best for our city.”
Tom Janas, who owns the property at 1351 Nelson Road where Ecoplexus wanted to develop a community solar garden, spoke against the planning commission’s recommendation.
“I think what happened here was the process got derailed early on,” Janas said. “Initially, the task of the planning commission was to look at the ordinance for solar energy in Independence. Almost immediately, it went to this specific application of ‘Can the Janases have a 40-acre solar farm?’ . . . If this is invisible to neighboring properties, why is it limited to 500 square feet?”
“When an applicant does come, you become the sounding block or tackling block for the general public, and it becomes a very personal issue,” Johnson said. “We’ve had other situations where it got ugly when reason doesn’t seem to prevail when you get a few people that seem to knock on several people’s doors.”
In addition to Ecoplexus’ request, the council discussed requirements for solar projects to be in the back of a property and wholly screened from the sightlines of other properties.
“If someone can make a good case for it not to go there, they can go through the variance process,” City Administrator Mark Kaltsas said. “That doesn’t add much time to the process.”
Odds and ends
In other business, the council:
• approved an amendment to the Lake Sarah no-wake restriction ordinance to make it consistent with the Lake Independence no-wake restriction ordinance, which stipulates that the no-wake restriction will be removed following the lake level remaining below the specified elevation for three consecutive days. Greenfield City Council will vote on the same language during its Aug. 3 meeting.
• approved an amendment to an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Transportation regarding maintenance of new lighting at the following Highway 12 intersections: Hennepin County Road 90, Valley Road, both Hennepin County Road 92 intersections, Hitsman Lane West, and Nelson Road. The amendment was necessary, as lighting was added at Nelson Road rather than Hitsman Lane East, which was listed in the initial agreement.