By Gabe Licht
Delano Herald Journal Editor
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN Three weeks after adopting an emergency moratorium on new solar farm applications, the Wright County Board unanimously voted to extend the countywide moratorium for up to six more months during the May 9 meeting.
Chair Pat Sawatzke said the purpose of the moratorium is to study the county’s current solar farm ordinance and make changes to it.
“In certain cases, where it’s not the best case and may be problematic, we can’t deny it right now,” Chair Pat Sawatzke said. “There may be other things that don’t need to be in the ordinance. Other things certainly need to be in the ordinance, including the running of power from the facility to a substation and the bonding for a road.”
“Those things will be addressed as part of this study process, with the help of a number of experts,” Commissioner Mark Daleiden added.
The board plans to establish a committee to study the solar ordinance and make recommendations during its Tuesday, May 17, meeting. Anyone interested in being a part of the committee is encouraged to contact Zoning Administrator Sean Riley.
Dean Leischow, of Sunrise Energy, said representatives from his company had participated when the county established the solar ordinance and conditional use permit process, saying he thought it was well thought out.
“It keeps the control where it belongs: with you,” Leischow said. “I don’t think a moratorium buys you a thing. Large projects needed by Xcel won’t go through you. You might be able to convince the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) to give you more control, and I think that’d be a good idea.”
When asked how to do that, Leischow suggested having legislators advocate for them and possibly consider litigation.
One of those legislators, Rep. Marion O’Neill, encouraged the board to enact a moratorium to protect prime agricultural land, noting that Xcel Energy plans to generate up to 2,400 megawatts of electricity from solar farms, using up to 24,000 acres of land to do so.
“We ask, ‘Can’t you use a less desirable piece of ground?’ Solar companies just say no. They don’t give a reason. They’re ending up on prime ag land. It’s happening all over the state. We don’t have a lot of land not doing anything,” O’Neill said.
Leischow disagreed, breaking down Wright County’s 357,800 acres, including 250,800 agricultural acres, 7,500 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program, 30,300 undeveloped acres, and 69,100 other acres.
“A total of 325 acres have been approved for solar,” Leischow said. “We’re talking less than .1 percent.”
Andy Melka, of Minnesota Solar Connection, later added that the total of planted acres in Minnesota increased from 19.45 million in 2013 to 20.63 million in 2015, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Report.
In addition to solar projects generating electricity for Xcel Energy, which must provide 1.5 percent of its electricity from solar energy by 2020, Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association has proposed a two-megawatt solar farm on 10 acres in Middleville Township and another two-megawatt solar farm on 10 acres in Maple Lake Township. Because those proposed farms are on restricted parcels without entitlements, the company could not apply for those sites unless an amendment was passed, which did not happen before the moratorium was enacted.
Steve Nisbet, of Wright-Hennepin, said customer demand was driving the company’s plans for solar farms.
“All our solar is being done because customers want it: 63 percent of Wright-Hennepin customers in Wright County want solar,” Nisbet said.
Resident Jerry McRaith, of Waverly, said neighbors’ opinions should be taken into consideration before approving solar farms.
“How will this affect a neighbor’s valuation?” McRaith asked. “Take that into consideration.”
Commissioner Charlie Borrell said he would rather have a solar farm surrounding his property than a development.
Harlan Anderson, a farmer from Cokato Township, spoke against a moratorium.
“I have a lot of confidence in planning and zoning to do their job,” Anderson said. “People are using me as a farmer as a pawn . . . If you have an ordinance, live by it. Townships have the right to a moratorium . . . If you put a moratorium, the PUC might put more projects in without restrictions . . . I don’t disagree we need to learn, but you can’t learn to run without taking the first step.”
Buffalo Township Supervisor Don Schmidt indicated that first step had been taken; with two large solar projects being constructed in Buffalo Township, including the Aurora project that was approved through the PUC, not the township and county boards.
“This will be a good test. Are they going to be good neighbors? So far, one isn’t,” Schmidt said, referencing the Aurora project, where 11 acres of trees were clear-cut. “Is this something we want in the township? Let’s see how it plays out. We haven’t had any of these around for 25 years, so there’s no test. In my opinion, the land won’t be like it was.”
Resident Leander Wetter encouraged supervisors to make sure, if they allow solar farms in the future, to require a large enough bond for decommissioning to cover the costs of that process. He gave an example of a $500 bond for a gravel pit in 1972, compared to the $16,000 bid to clean it up years later.
Schmidt expressed frustration about the county board previously approving a solar proposal the township board adamantly opposed, but noted that, had the county denied the request, it likely would not have held up in court.
Assistant County Attorney Greg Kryzer agreed with that assessment.
“You need specific findings as part of the denial process,” Kryzer said. “You can’t just use neighborhood opposition. That was the issue with Buffalo Township. If it was challenged, it would be a difficult defense.”
Sawatzke noted that findings could be used to create an overlay district to restrict where solar projects could be permitted. Kryzer said that process would take more than a year, while minor tweaks would take two to three months.
At that point, Daleiden made a motion to extend the moratorium for up to three months.
“I’m fine with shorter than a year, but three months is putting too much pressure on our employees,” Sawatzke said.
Daleiden then agreed to amend his motion to enact a moratorium for up to six months.
The moratorium applies to solar farms. Solar energy systems of up to 100 kilowatts in size may still be permitted on agricultural land, as well as solar energy systems of up to 10 kilowatts in size in residential areas.
The moratorium applies to all townships in the county, even those that administer their own planning and zoning. It does not apply to cities or the Monticello Orderly Annexation Area.
Odds and ends
In other business, the board:
• awarded a bid of $654,737 to Knife River Corporation, of Sauk Rapids, for overlay of Wright County roads 116, 147, and County State Aid Highway 42. The engineer’s estimate for the projects was $720,989.
• learned about the drug court program that county employees are applying for state and federal grants to establish. Only nonviolent individuals facing drug charges would be eligible for the program. Studies show that drug court is significantly cheaper than incarceration, and 75 percent of drug court participants do not re-offend, while only 30 percent of those incarcerated do not re-offend.
• approved the hiring of a new financial worker for Wright County Health and Human Services and a new deputy for the Wright County Sheriff’s Office.
• passed a resolution recognizing Emergency Management Services Week from May 15 to May 21.
• authorized Director of Parks and Recreation Mark Mattice to sign grant applications and certifications in regards to the Wright County Snowmobile Association participation in the grant in aid snowmobile assistance program for the 2016-17 season.
• canceled the Aug. 9 meeting due to five Tuesdays in August.