WRIGHT COUNTY, MN – What began as a discussion about an amendment to allow solar projects on restricted land with no building entitlements resulted in the Wright County Board voting unanimously to enact an emergency moratorium on new solar project applications in the county during its Tuesday morning meeting.
“Applications currently filed with planning and zoning will still be processed,” Assistant County Attorney Greg Kryzer said. “The resolution you’re adopting is for staf to deny any applications presented after this resolution.”
Four weeks earlier, the board had tabled discussion on the amendment and directed Kryzer to outline the county’s options regarding solar projects.
Those options included approving the amendment, denying the amendment, adopting a different amendment or overlay district to further restrict where solar projects could be developed, or enacting an emergency moratorium on solar projects in the county. The emergency moratorium will be in effect until a public hearing at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, May 10, to consider a moratorium to be in place for up to one year.
“If you’re looking at doing an overlay district or substantial changes to the ordinance, our office is recommending a moratorium,” Kryzer said.
Had the board begun the process of amending the county’s solar ordinance without a moratorium, “you’ll have applications coming in during the process of trying to make amendments, and you’ll be treating different people differently,” Kryzer added. “I think it’s best, if you’re going to recommend changes such as an overlay district, put a freeze on it right now, go through it, and study it. You can always cancel a moratorium.”
Township officials from Buffalo, Clearwater, Franklin, Monticello, and Southside townships expressed support for a moratorium.
Franklin Township Supervisor DeWayne Bauman referenced the eight-megawatt solar project that the Public Utilities Commission approved, which is currently being developed in Buffalo Township.
“It’s a disaster out there,” Bauman said. “They cleared 60 acres of trees. They’re moving in 215,000 cubic yards of soil.”
“We need to slow this down,” Buffalo Township Supervisor Don Schmidt added. “People are appalled at what happened to us. We need to look at the effect on the county and the townships. Maybe we can avoid mistakes and make it workable so it suits more people.”
Monticello Township Supervisor Brett Holker encouraged the commissioners to “get together with the industry and try to understand how the logistics of where the substations are and how the engineering and technical piece works and make that part of, if you do an overlay district, make that a part of it.”
Gordy Simanton, of SolarStone, said he would be willing to participate in a workshop with commissioners to bring them up to speed.
He said his company targets marginal land such as decommissioned wastewater treatment facilities and gravel pits for solar projects, with prime agricultural land at the bottom of their list due to cost. A project SolarStone proposed in Cokato Township was one of three confirmed proposals for solar projects on restricted land.
Commissioner Charlie Borrell said Cokato Township supervisors had indicated to him that it was an ideal site.
He spoke in favor of allowing solar projects on restricted land, but also said he understood the rational behind a moratorium.
“I’m not opposed to (the moratorium),” Borrell said. “I hope we can look at the zoning ordinance change at the same time.”
He referenced concerns raised at the April 14 Wright County Planning Commission meeting, as did Planning Administrator Shawn Riley.
“One item that came up was the odd nature of 20 to 25 power poles clustered together that was done by Xcel, as well as putting poles in the right of way, and land alteration,” Riley said. “The transition area (for city expansion into townships) was also a pretty debated topic.”
Steve Nisbet, of Wright-Hennepin Electric Co-op, said a solar project his company has proposed would be located on restricted land in Maple Lake Township, would not have any “strange interconnection” such as extra poles, and would consist of 10 to 15 acres of low-laying land surrounded by land that is farmed regularly.
Laura Caspari, of SoCore Energy, is working with Wright-Hennepin to plan that project and another in Middleville Township. She spoke against a moratorium.
“You’re at risk of throwing out these cooperative projects,” Caspari said. “The call for a moratorium for a year is concerning.”
She added that a moratorium could also jeopardize Xcel-related projects.
“There’s a timeline with Xcel,” Caspari said. “If they don’t get a permit in a timely manner, those projects won’t happen.
“I can’t speak to what Xcel would do in this exact situation, but in other locations in the past, they have not given any extensions,” she added when asked about that possibility.
Commissioner Mark Daleiden suggested that Xcel might be forced to do grant extensions in order to fulfill the state mandate for solar energy.
That mandate calls for Xcel to produce 1.5 percent of its energy load from solar sources by 2020, Simanton said. He said that amounts to 450 megawatts, which he estimated would require between 2,200 and 2,300 acres of solar panels.
Regarding allowing solar projects on restricted land, an issue the county will address during the moratorium, Commissioner Christine Husom voiced her concern.
“My overriding concern is we’re not allowing, currently, other industries on restricted ag land,” Husom said. “To throw that out, it just opens it to other industries. How can we deny anything else coming in?”
“I think it makes sense to change this,” Borrell said. “If we make this so solar panels are exempt on restricted land, it does not open up a can of worms. You’re not going to be able to say, ‘I want a gravel pit on there.’ You’re still going to have to come back, and we’d have to change the ordinance again.”
For now, the board voted unanimously to deny the ordinance change, with the possibility of reintroducing it after studying the issue during the moratorium.
For more Wright County Board coverage, see the April 25 edition of the Herald Journal.