by CHRIS ROGERS
When the first “solar farms” came to Winona County in 2015, they where novel. Now, there are six small, solar-power plants completed or in-the-works within several miles of Rollingstone. Another one is being proposed near Dakota next week.
While solar farms have proliferated, Winona County’s rules governing them have remained relatively unchanged in recent years. These clean energy plants do not produce greenhouse gases or toxic smog, but neighbors still have some concerns about aesthetics and stray voltage and some county leaders are concerned about their impact on the availability of farmland. In agricultural zones, multi-acre solar arrays are still subject to the same setback as sheds: 20-50 feet from the property line. County officials have often set a stricter requirements for solar farms on a case-by-case basis, but they have done so without clear, across-the-board rules. After months of discussion and a public hearing at the Planning Commission, the Winona County Board was slated to approve new rules for solar farms last week. After renewable energy companies and citizens expressed their opposition to some of those rules, the County Board agreed to hold another public hearing and possibly relax some of the proposed regulations.
“These new requirements are unduly restrictive and economically harmful to farmers and residents of Winona County,” Minnesota City resident Janel Dean told the County Board.
At issue for Dean and renewable energy professionals who testified last week were two proposed rules: first, that large-scale solar energy systems be 500 feet from neighboring residences, and second, that they not be installed on prime agricultural soils. The goal of the setback requirement was to address neighbors’ concerns, and the proposed prime-soil restriction was aimed at making sure prime cropland is available for crops and not occupied by solar arrays for decades to come. However, Winona Renewable Energy owner Tim Gulden and representatives of other solar power companies argued that solar farms are easily removed at the end of their life with no longterm detriment to farmland soil and the option to diversify their farm’s income by leasing land for solar arrays is actually a great benefit to farmers at a time when making money off crops is a difficult prospect. “Removing item four from the Winona County solar ordinance would help to guarantee that our local farmers are able to choose how they utilize and profit from their land,” Gulden said, referring to the proposed prime-soils restriction.
Winona County has a similar restriction on building houses on prime soils, and that’s an important rule for the preservation of farmland, County Board member Chris Meyer said. “But I see this as a very different, especially when it comes to solar gardens,” she stated in an interview. “The farmer maintains ownership of the property, is able to earn some revenue on it, and is then able to return it to agricultural use.” If the revenue from solar farms helps keep farmers on the land, it might be more helpful to Winona County farms to allow it than to ban solar farms from prime soils, she argued.
At last week’s meeting, Meyer and County Board member Greg Olson made a motion to eliminate the prime-soils restriction and reduce the setback from 500 feet to 300 feet.
These proposed rules were seriously vetted at the Planning Commission level, where there was public notice of the proposals and the public had an opportunity to weigh in, County Board member Steve Jacob noted. The County Board should not change these proposed rules at the last minute without giving other members of the public an opportunity to respond, he argued.
Jacob tried to pass the proposed ordinance as drafted — without any changes — but no one else supported his motion.
County Board member Marcia Ward was not willing, at that time, to approve the proposed ordinance without any changes. However, she said, “I would probably concur with Commissioner Jacob. These are some significant changes, and if we change it again, I think we do need to give the public time to weigh in.”
Jacob and Ward voted 2-3 in failed motion send the proposed solar ordinance back to the Planning Commission for a public hearing. Meyer, Olson, and County Board member Marie Kovecsi voted against that motion.
After that motion failed, Jacob proposed that the County Board — rather than the Planning Commission —hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance before taking a final vote. Meyer, Olson, and Kovecsi agreed.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.