At its meeting Jan. 26, the Wright County Board of Commissioners voted for a second time in five years to place an emergency moratorium on the construction and development of solar farms in the county.
The placement of solar farms on agricultural land has been a controversial topic with strong feelings on both sides of the issue, which helped lead the county board to unanimously vote to take a pause on the approval of more solar farms until the ordinance can be reviewed and language changes made.
The emergency interim ordinance can be in effect for up to one year. During that period, no new or pending applications for zoning, rezoning or land use permits for a solar energy farm will be accepted, processed or approved by Wright County. In addition, staff will not engage in any negotiation for the construction, expansion or establishment of a solar energy farm accept or process any solar energy farm developer agreements.
Wright County Planning & Zoning Administrator Sean Riley said the five years the ordinance has been in place has been useful, but has also highlighted some of the flaws in it that can be improved and a moratorium would allow those tweaks to be made.
“I think the good news is we overall have a good product in our zoning ordinance,” Riley said. “But we do have 15 to 20 sites in the county. I think most of them have been done well, so we have some experience. But we have debate of vegetative cover, land alteration, wetlands, drainage and decommissioning tools in our toolbox. The land use is five or six years old. There are moving parts to it. If we need to re-look at the details and fine-tune things, we will put resources and effort into doing that.”
Nine individuals spoke at the public hearing and those speaking against the moratorium outnumbered those in favor by a 2:1 margin.
Evan Carlson of IPS Solar in Roseville said he felt frustrated by the discussion of another moratorium because his first attempt for a solar farm in Wright County was forced to be put on hold for a year and he represented the solar industry to create the current ordinance and, after initiating a project for just the second time, he sees another moratorium as unnecessary.
“This is déjà vu,” Carlson said. “I was on a committee over the course of an entire year as we scrutinized the ordinance and made it to its current form – one of if not the most restrictive ordinances that we’ve seen. The ordinance has a requirement that there be a developer agreement between the developer and the county and it basically gives all the power to the county. It is already an enormously restrictive ordinance and a great deal of care was put into crafting it.”
Brian Keenan of IPS Solar said that a moratorium hurts the local economy since many of the smaller solar companies hire local contractors to do much of the site work. He said that companies who play by the rules should not be penalized by another stoppage in solar farm development.
Commissioner Darek Vetsch said that the county isn’t anti-solar, but the ordinance needs more checks and balances because, as it currently stands, it could be more cost-efficient for a solar company to simply walk away from a project than the paying the cost of maintenance and eventual removal in 25-30 years.
“The conversation here came not as a play against solar energy,” Vetsch said. “More discussion here is about making sure we do our due diligence and protect Wright County taxpayers from harm down the road. What we’ve come to now because we have to use the same ordinance to hold everyone responsible. We have a situation now where our ordinance maybe isn’t defined enough to make that happen. We need to take a pause here, look at the ordinance and make sure it has the right language in there so we don’t hold taxpayers liable for potential large expenses down the road.”
The board unanimously approved establishing the moratorium, but Vetsch said it may not go the one year that it has the authority to do. At the Feb. 2 meeting of the county board, the first steps in the plan of study of the ordinance will be on the agenda and the process will begin immediately.
“It’s going to take time to set things up,” Vetsch said. “With the notification process and the scheduling of meetings, don’t expect this to get done in three months. However, if we can address the issues that have been identified and review the ordinance to address changes that have taken place over the last four or five years since this was written and approved, I’m confident we can get the work completed by the end of summer or into the fall of this year and have ordinance everyone can feel more comfortable with.”