Farm Horizons, December 2016

Wright County Board amends solar ordinance, lifts moratorium

by Gabe Licht
Delano Herald Journal Editor

After a six-month moratorium, solar energy projects as large as five megawatts will be allowed once again in Wright County.

The county had initially adopted a solar energy ordinance in 2015.

“Then the board said, ‘Timeout,’ and did a moratorium,” Wright County Zoning Administrator Sean Riley said. “It needed to have some fine-tuning and amendments done with it.”

The process

A work group with about 15 members worked together to do that fine-tuning. That group included two Wright County Board commissioners, two Wright County Planning Commission members, township board members, solar developers, and private citizens.

“It was contentious at first,” Riley said.

That was to be expected considering the differing opinions of those in the work group.

“There were people who don’t think this is a viable way of meeting electrical demands and who oppose putting them on prime farmland,” Riley said. “Developers spoke to state law and regulations and some of the decisions that have been made to allow them to do this. If it’s going to be done, they have to be somewhere.”

Work group members worked through their differences and toward resolution.

“Once we set aside the philosophies and the things we didn’t have control of, we talked about the details,” Riley said. “We made the assumption of, ‘If these are going to be done, what’s the best way to do it?’”

Work group members learned from each other.

“Township and local parties realized what this industry is about and the impacts it will have,” Riley said. “(Solar developers) realized how critical it is to meet with townships and local people first, and take into account setbacks and impacts on the land.”

Work group recommendations were sent to the planning commission, which made recommendations to the Wright County Board. The board then approved the amendment Nov. 1 following a public hearing.

“I think everybody tried really hard to come to a consensus,” Chair Pat Sawatzke said. “If I remember correctly, every person felt this was a better product than before . . . I’m not saying it’s the perfect ordinance, but in light of the challenges that exist in the industry and all the unknowns, it’s a lot better than we had.”

During the public hearing, the board clarified that townships could have more restrictive ordinances. Buffalo and Franklin townships currently have moratoriums on solar projects in place while they work out the details of potential ordinances.

The changes

Wright County’s solar ordinance underwent several changes.

One change requires a bond to be in place before development.

“There will be a set of plans and estimates on what kind of work needs to be done to decommission these. That will be used to come to an agreement to bond for that work to be done,” Riley said.

Taking the bonding concept a step further, the county is requiring development agreements.

“We came up with a concept of implementing development agreements to wrap up all the bonds and financial safeguards,” Riley said. “It’s a contract the county and developer sing that spells out everything. For example, if they don’t mow and take care of the vegetation, after a certain amount of time, we have the authority to call on the bond and take care of it ourselves. That was always assumed before, but after dealing with a couple, we realized all the issues that could come up.”

The county would like to see solar projects developed in such a way that the agricultural land could be preserved.

“The land use has been presented to us to come onto farm land and not disturb it so, if the panels are removed some day, it can go back to farming,” Riley said. “The group required limited land alterations. Try to leave it as is and don’t build too many access roads or alter the topography of the soils. Don’t put down too much impervious surface.”

Setbacks have been increased.

“At a minimum, it would be 100 feet,” Riley said. “The planning commission could require more as they found it was needed. It was just a property line setback before. It was a minimum of 50 feet . . . Now it must be at least 100 feet from a residence.”

Screening or plantings may also be required.

“It’s site-specific and all about location,” Riley said. “If it’s in the middle of nowhere, there’s less requirements than if it’s by a neighborhood. If there is housing nearby, every effort will be made to have the site developed as far away from housing as possible, and have screening and plantings between the two.”

That would also apply if businesses were nearby.

“As far as protecting businesses, it would be upt to the planning commission at the conditional use permit stage (to decide) if things are too close or need screening, barriers, that type of thing,” Riley said during the Nov. 1 meeting.

Smaller projects

In addition to large, five-megawatt solar projects, smaller projects may be allowed on residential or agricultural property.

“You can walk in and get a building permit to do small pole- or house-mounted solar panels,” Riley said. “We have it capped for permitted use. If you go over that, it goes to a conditional use permit. We do it based on size: 10 kilowatts for a house and for an agricultural parcel it’s 100 kilowatts.”

Residents can also apply for a conditional use permit for a solar project up to 40 kilowatts in size.

For more information, contact Wright County Planning and Zoning at (763) 682-7338.

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