Solar farms continue to be the hot topic for the Waseca County Board of Commissioners.

Three new projects are proposed for development by Novel Energy Solutions. At the June 4 meeting, the first conditional use permit for a solar farm on Roger Haley’s farm was tabled until the next county board meeting on June 18. The other two conditional use permits for solar farms for Nathan Groh and Michael and Carol Jewison passed with 3-1 votes. Commissioner Blair Nelson was the only nay for both votes.

The board previously approved a 180-day moratorium on all new solar garden applications, so commissioners and staff could take time to consider the effects of the gardens on local residents and what regulations need to be in place. The moratorium means any new application for a solar garden to be developed within county limits will be on hold until the moratorium ends; however, the three applicants brought to this meeting were able to be voted on because they were submitted before the moratorium was put in place.

The main concern among county leaders, discussed at the last meeting, is determining setbacks for the gardens. Oftentimes, the gardens are being located within hundreds of feet from the nearest residences.

The board has drafted solar farm codes for setbacks. The proposed setback says that if there is a residence within 500 feet of the proposed solar farm, the property line setback adjacent to the residence shall be increased to 200 feet and the area between the solar farm and the residence shall be landscaped and the landscape plan shall be approved by the Waseca County Board.

But these proposed setbacks are not yet approved and do not apply to the in-process applications.

New projects

The Haley farm is located on northwest side of town off of County Road 5. Graham Johnson was the first to speak on this solar farm as he lives across the road from Haley.

He said he isn’t against solar gardens when they’re in the proper spots, but he wants the solar farm on the Haley property to be pushed back further out of sight.

Steve Johnson also lives across the road from the Haley’s. His biggest concern was about the view of the solar panel and the potential risk of a glare coming off of one that would blind drivers passing by. A representative from Novel Energy Solutions spoke later to the board and the crowd sharing they put an anti-glare coating on the panels so there would be no safety concern in that regard. The representative also shared that the placement of the potential solar farm on the Haley property meets and exceeds the requirements.

Cathy Johnson is another neighbor who lives next door to the Haley farm. She noted that Minnesota doesn’t consider solar an agricultural use, and the land the Haley’s want to put the solar farm on is zoned agricultural.

“I think that’s a good argument on our end that says it’s not actually a good place for it to go …,” Cathy Johnson said.

Haley shared his thoughts as well.

“I guess I’m the reason most everybody is here, I wasn’t intending for this project to end up this way,” Haley said.

He shared that the project has been moved back on the property and is eating up more prime farmland.

“Ag is a unique business; my business industrial park has people living in it most of the time; it’s a privilege and sometimes it’s a pain in the butt,” Haley said. “When this is done, there isn’t a person I won’t talk to.”

The neighbors who spoke about the Haley solar farm project all expressed good will toward the Haleys and were in favor of solar power, but they would like to see the solar farm pushed back further on the property.

“We appreciate everyone’s comments today, and there are no winners today, and this is a tough decision, and everyone values their property,” Waseca County Board Chairman Brian Harguth said.

Planning and Zoning Administrator Mark Leiferman reintroduced the conditional use permit application from the Haleys. At a past meeting, the board was able to deny the conditional use permit for 60 days to gather more information. The board voted to table the Haley solar farm conditional use permit for the second time for another 60 days.

During this time, the board has to vote on the application in order to give additional criteria. After the 60 days, if they don’t vote on the application, it will automatically be approved and the board will have no say on criteria.

Debate

One requirement for solar farms is a vegetative screening that would help hide the panels from view. Currently, the Haley project requires 152 trees for the screening that needs to be placed within 25 feet of the fence on the south and west sides. These trees would need to be 15 feet apart and 15 feet between rows.

“As a short-term commissioner, but having some experience on the planning and zoning board, there’s a couple thoughts I have here,” DeAnne Malterer said. “We want to look at how properties are unique and take that into account, and in order to be consistent with our code, we need to look at past practice, and of course planning and zoning by nature has to do with property rights and property rights have to do with what you can permit to do with your parcel. We have in past practice allowed these closer to residents with screening … I absolutely appreciate the question of whether this affects property values, and I appreciate that idea and I wish we had more data … I know what we did in past practice and this project more than meets our code.”

Nelson had an opposing viewpoint.

“Code is unique, and in good consciousness, I can’t vote for something that will disrupt a number of households,” board member Blair Nelson said. “Unique comes up to my mind and past code, maybe we’ve gotten it wrong … Compassion, we have to look out for all our residents, and I was voted up here to look out for those in my district and I am looking out for our community.”

Commissioner Doug Christopherson added on.

“This is a very unique situation…,” Doug Christopherson said. “I know the assessor would say there is no devaluing of property having solar next to you, solar is pretty new, lot of sales in that area, this is unique in the fact that there are two houses with their picture window facing it with an inclining slope that the trees are going to have a hard time covering it, hard time getting past that, I know it’s a judgement call for us to deny it, but it also says in our code that we will not do things to devalue property.”

Other projects

The Nathan Groh solar project will be on old Hwy. 14 after the board passed the conditional use permit needed for the project. Janesville City Council was notified by county staff of the potential solar farm and the City Council didn’t respond.

The Jewison solar farm, to be located off of east Elysian Lake road, brought out one of their neighbors to comment during the public comment section of the meeting. Jill Frederick shared her concerns for the solar farm before it was approved at the meeting.

“The solar company, the owners, can all go home, but the neighbors have to be surrounded by them 24/7,” Frederick said.

Frederick also brought up the concern of how the solar farm view will affect their home values and take away from the historical aspect of the Lake Elysian area.

“It’s not that we’re opposed to it, it’s the sight,” Frederick said.

The Jewison solar farm will have an additional gate at the entrance of the road to keep those who don’t belong out. The screen landscaping plan at the moment requires 51 trees to conceal the solar farm from the view of the neighbors.

Darrell Fleming showed support as a concerned resident, as he is not directly affected by any of the three solar projects presented at the meeting.

“Waseca County is a popular place for these things, and that’s the way it’s going to be for a lot of years, and if you put them in front of their homes, I’m confident it’s going to affect their property value,” Fleming said.

He agrees with the other commenters that there are a lot of benefits to solar, and that its good for the environment, but he thinks that the farmers have more land and can move the solar farms out of the sight of residents.

“Landowners in the community have the opportunity to be leaders in the community,” Fleming said.

For the commissioners, the input from residents just reflected their own conflicted feelings.

“I struggled with this both ways, because I do support solar,” Christopherson said. “We’ve got to look at that for the future of our children, grandchildren. I’m not saying (the Haley) project couldn’t go through, but I have a hard time with it …”

Reach Reporter Bailey Grubish at 507-837-5451 or follow her on Twitter @wcnbailey.

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