Webster Township residents are expressing concerns after local solar developers failed to address significant issues at two local sites, despite promises made during the public hearing process.
“I have no problem with solar panels, but both of these projects brought up different problems that ended up being very frustrating for me and neighbors,” said Township resident Duane Kane.
In 2016, solar farm developer SolarStone was granted a conditional use permit to build a 5MW solar farm, one of the largest in the county at 7380 40th Street in rural Webster. Two years later, a second permit was awarded to U.S. Solar to build a much smaller solar site at 6647 40th St W.
At the CUP hearing, area residents were given three minutes each to express their concerns, while the developer was given unlimited time both to present their case and answer questions.
County Commissioner Jeff Docken, who sits on the Planning Commission, says he believes that three minutes should be more than enough time to express concerns at a public hearing.
Kane disagrees. He criticized the process for being far too restrictive and says that he’s not alone in his concerns. He says he’s talked to officials from neighboring counties, and none of them have rules as restrictive as Rice County’s.
At the public hearing for the first site, neighbors had questions about the kind of vegetation that would be planted around the site, the kind of fencing that would guard the site and the length of construction along with what kinds of vehicles would need to be used.
SolarStone’s consultant assured neighbors that the site would be covered with pollinator plants, that the fencing would be safe for wildlife and in keeping with the surroundings, and that the construction process would be completed quickly with minimal disruption.
Neighbors say that many of these promises turned out to be empty.
Kane criticized the construction process, which took nearly a year, with extremely loud and large equipment working nearly every day. A chain link and barbed wire fence was erected around the site.
Neighbors were able to get the company to eventually put up site-specific, wildlife friendly fencing because that promise had been a part of the conditional use permit approved by county commissioners. Yet to this day, the pollinator plants still have not been planted.
Worse, Kane said that despite the assurances of consultants, he has to deal with direct glare from the solar panels shining at his house several months out of the year.
Because the solar panel would be located by the intersection of two gravel roads, neighbors expressed concerns about limited sight lines as well as potential drainage issues.
Marvin Simon, whose property sits across a gravel road from the site, was perhaps the most affected by the drainage issues. Simon said that when the company took out a pond on the location, it ended up dumping a significant amount of runoff water onto his property.
Even though he owns a neighboring property, Simon says he had very little say in the project. He said the solar company should have given ample time for neighbors to give feedback and challenge the company to improve its design, but the company had little interest in doing so.
“Well, they said ‘they’re in compliance, and there isn’t very much we can do about it,” Simon said.
After the solar permit was approved, it was discovered that due to errors by U.S. Solar, the solar field would be even closer to the intersection than originally calculated. Rice County approved a variance to allow construction to move ahead.
Docken acknowledged that, especially in the first case, the developer’s promises were simply not kept. While he doesn’t believe that the system needs fundamental changes to protect the public, the county and its staff needs to be careful to hold developers to their word.
“We want to hold the developers to what they say they’re going to do,” he said.