Solar panels Kasota

Le Sueur County Commissioners approved new regulations for large solar farms. Farms producing more than 100 kilowatts of energy will be prohibited from residential and recreational districts and must be kept 750 feet away from dwellings. (County News file photo)

After a year-long moratorium on solar garden construction, Le Sueur County is imposing new zoning regulations on solar farms.

On Tuesday, May 19, the Le Sueur County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the new regulations, which will go into effect and end the moratorium on June 15.

The county Planning and Zoning Commission began drafting a new solar ordinance in 2019 after complaints came from township and county residents that solar gardens were being built too close to their houses. At the time, the county did not have property setbacks in place to prohibit this, and so the county banned the establishment of new solar farms until new regulations could be put in place.

Planning and Zoning Administrator Joshua Mankowski presented the new standards to the council, which prohibits large solar energy systems producing 100 kilowatts or greater from being built in residential, shoreline and conservancy districts and requires a conditional use permit to build the systems elsewhere. Smaller solar systems producing less than 100 kilowatts are permissible in all districts without a conditional use permit.

The standards also come with a number of setbacks for large solar farms. The structures must be setback 750 feet from dwellings and residential zoning districts and from other large solar energy systems. Gardens must also be built at least 75 feet from Public Conservation Lands, 1 mile from a scenic byway and two miles from a municipality unless the developer receives written consent.

Faribault resident Joan Merrick took issue with the proposed regulations. Merrick owned a 69-acre parcel in Le Sueur County that she was looking to convert into a solar garden, but with parts of her property falling within a shoreline district and other parts being within the 750-foot setback, Merrick told the county that only 8 acres could be used for the solar garden if the regulations were passed.

“The way you are proposing this ordinance, I am not sure how I could even fit an 8-acre solar garden onto my 69-acre parcel due to residential setbacks of 750 feet and 1,000 feet from a waterway that I think are too much,” Merrick wrote in a letter to the commissioners. “The 750-foot residential setback from the house on the west side of the property line takes away from the western and middle part of my property for building a solar garden. Is 750 feet really needed? Some other counties use 500 feet for the setback.”

Merrick, along with Pat Weir, a representative of IPS Solar that signed a lease with Merrick, also believed that the solar farm would be beneficial for lakeshores, because the garden only uses pollinator-friendly plants and does not use pesticides or fertilizers which could lead to chemical runoff.

Mankowski told the commissioners that the 750-foot setback was determined after the Planning and Zoning Commission examined the regulations of other counties and after much debate, the commission came to 750 feet as a middle ground. He also explained that the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) did not want large solar gardens in shoreline districts at this time.

{p dir=”ltr”}“[The Planning and Zoning Commission] felt that it could distract from the lakes themselves and then to have all that impervious surface near the lake,” said Mankowski. “According to our zoning ordinance, solar panels are considered an impervious surface [and] parcels would need to maintain a max 25% impervious surface. There has been a lot of discussion on that due to how they’re viewed in the bid calculations by the PCA for stormwater pond sizing.”

{p dir=”ltr”}If the county did want the gardens to be included in shoreland districts, Mankowski told the Board of Commissioners that the Planning and Zoning Board would need to establish setbacks from the lake. Changing residential setbacks would also require the commission to reevaluate separation.

{p dir=”ltr”}”I know it sounds like a simple change,” said Mankowski. “I would recommend sending it back to the Planning and Zoning Commission if you want that [setback] changed.”

{p dir=”ltr”}The Commissioners ultimately voted to accept the standards as is, rather than send them back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for further review. Commissioner John King was the only member of the board to vote no, after voicing concerns that the setbacks were too restrictive.

{p dir=”ltr”}“While I appreciate the Planning commission’s work and due diligence, I’m inclined to think that some of these setbacks are maybe excessive,” said King.

Reach Reporter Carson Hughes at 507-931-8575. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All Rights Reserved.

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