by ZACH KAYSER
A one-megawatt solar farm on former cropland near the Apple Blossom Drive Scenic Byway is up for consideration by the County Board on Tuesday, the same proposed expansion that caused a bushel of controversy when it was discussed at the Planning Commission last month.
The County Board is scheduled to decide, as part of its consent agenda, whether to give a permit to a proposed eight-acre solar farm just west of County Road 1 in Dresbach Township that will produce electricity for the Xcel Energy distribution lines. There are already two one-megawatt arrays on the same farm, owned by the George and Kimberly Karr family, so this new plot will create a total of 24 acres of solar panels creating three megawatts for Xcel’s lines.
According to the Findings of Fact approved by the Planning Commission, putting in the new panels would not impact the values of neighbor’s properties in a measurable way, but it would hurt the neighborhood aesthetic. The developers plan to put 6-8-foot trees around the panels as a screen, but the panels are high enough on the hillside that no plantings will completely block them out from the view of neighbors. Planner Lew Overhaug said in his presentation that earlier, there had been concerns regarding erosion at the site, which led to the commission denying an original petition for the same project back in September. So in addition to the vegetation screen, another condition of the permit was that the Karrs control erosion by planting bee-friendly wildflowers underneath the panels, as well as submitting an erosion control plan for review and approval by the county. The permit also mandated that the property maintain a $30,000 surety to finance the eventual decommissioning of the panels.
Even though the commission approved the Findings of Fact during its March 18 meeting, there was a 6-3 split over whether to approve the project writ large. Originally, a motion to recommend the county board deny the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) failed 3-6. Then, a second motion to recommend approval of the CUP passed 6-3.
The votes came after a spirited debate.
Planning Commission member Lynn Carlson compared the project to a strip mine. “Maybe I’m being a little ignorant or naive, but I have an environmental science degree, and I just read last week that we are no longer strip mining on mountain tops, because it’s disastrous … I’m kind of wondering why we’re treating our bluff tops differently,” she said. “Why we think we can strip the topsoil and still restore the horizons of the earth by just putting it back on top later.”
Planner Lew Overhaug did not agree with the comparison. “I don’t think they’re comparable, Lynn,” he said.
There is no mining at the site near Apple Blossom Scenic Drive.
Carlson would later vote against approving the CUP, twice.
When it came time for the public to speak about the project, neighbor Rebecca Faas complained the solar panels would ruin her view. She questioned why the commission would bother to solicit the opinion of neighbors if they wouldn’t listen to them.
Keli Shapiro, also a neighbor, said the existing panels were fine, but the proposed panels would be visible and unsightly. “We have a very nice piece of land — which we paid top dollar for — and it’s disappointing that there’s not any real consideration [by the county] that everyone who lives there has paid a lot of money to live in a beautiful place,” Shapiro said.
When it came time for the commissioners themselves to debate, there was a split between different factions.
Planning Commission member Arlie Herber said he himself had tried to put solar panels on his own property but had been told the distribution lines in his area did not have enough capacity. He said he appreciated that the petitioners had added in 6-8-foot trees as part of the project plan, and pointed out that given the smallness of trees at other farms, none of those present at the meeting would actually be alive to see the trees grow to conceal the solar panels.
Planning Commission member Patrick Byron said he had heard for decades about Apple Blossom Scenic Drive from locals who enjoyed the drive, adding that the road was an economic driver for nearby La Crescent. He also was hesitant to take agricultural land out of production.
However, Planning Commission member Steve Jacob, a farmer and county commissioner, spoke up in favor of giving the permit. “When a person buys property — as the applicant has here — they have property rights,” he said.
When the landowners were willing to comply with all the conditions in the CUP, Jacob said, what basis did the commission have to deny them the permit? The neighbors were free to just buy the land through the private market if they wanted to prevent the solar panels from going up, he said. “I understand the neighbors' concerns, but as a property rights advocate, my solution is that those neighbors can certainly buy that land and keep it out of solar production, keep it out of farm production, do whatever they want to with it,” Jacob said. “But, for them to have control over somebody else’s property is just a tough pill for me to swallow, and so therefore, I can’t support [denying the permit].”
At the final vote, Jacob, Herber, Planning Commission Chair Mark Clark, and members Jordan Potter, Michael Flynn and Lewis Reiman voted to approve the permit, while Carlson, Byron and member Kelley Stanage voted against.