by CHRIS ROGERS
In a 3-2 vote, the Winona County Board heeded the call of local climate activists and the solar industry last week when it dropped proposed new restrictions on solar power plants. This week, two more solar plants are being proposed in the county.
One of the proposed new rules would have encouraged developers not to place solar power plants on prime cropland. Preserving farm land for farming is a tenet of the county’s zoning rules, and some rural county officials wanted to keep new solar arrays from taking up prime cropland. However, Winona-based county leaders were swayed by arguments that solar power plants could be removed and the underlying land returned to agricultural production without damaging soils. In fact, the soil might benefit from the perennial cover crops that would be grown during a solar plant’s operation, they said.
The county Planning Commission proposed a new solar ordinance that would have partially judged solar-power-plant permit applications based on whether 40 percent or more of the project would sit on prime soils. Unlike the county’s restriction against building homes on prime soils, the proposed ordinance would not have been a hard-and-fast rule, just one criterion projects would be judged against. Even if a project did not meet the criterion, county officials would have the flexibility to approve it anyway, county staff explained. The criterion would encourage solar developers to use less prime soils and allow the county to negotiate with developers to reduce the amount of prime soils being developed, staff members said.
If humanity is going to address the climate-change crisis, more solar power is needed as soon as possible, local citizens told the County Board in public hearings this winter. “Adding barriers to the development of solar in our community is just one more step that developers need to go through, and we don’t have a lot of time,” Winonan Jackson Ramsland said. “We need to move as quickly as possible to greener, more renewable energy, and large solar arrays are one way we in Winona County can participate in that,” Winona resident Emilie Falc stated.
The Planning Commission had also proposed a 500-foot setback between solar power arrays and neighboring residences. Currently, the only setback required for solar plants is the 25-foot setback from neighboring properties that all structures are subject to. In 2015, a proposal to build a solar plant less than 100 feet from several homes in Ridgeway angered neighbors before it ultimately failed because the developer could not secure an agreement to hook the plant up to the electrical grid.
The County Board voted 3-2 last week to approve the new solar ordinance, but strike the prime-soils criterion and cut the setback down to 300 feet.
“I believe it is important to protect prime soils. On the other hand, I think that for a farmer who is struggling and who could maybe give 15 acres to a community solar garden and make $15,000 a year and actually stay on their farm, that it actually helps more farmland to stay in crops than actually approving the ordinance as written,” County Board member Chris Meyer said, before voting to eliminate the prime soils criterion.
“Farmers are in a particularly difficult place right now, and if we can help them by allowing them to do a variety of economies on their land, in addition to farming, I don’t believe taking land out of commission, out of production for 25 years and the planting of pollinator plants or native plants — I do believe that will actually improve the soil health when the [solar] panels are later removed,” County Board member Marie Kovecsi stated.
Kovecsi also discussed how the Planning Commission decided on a 500-foot setback: “When they did start talking about the setback, staff had recommended 300 feet, and one of the Planning Commission members recommended 1,000 feet … and they settled on the 500. That seemed rather arbitrary to me.”
Kovecsi, Meyer, and County Board member Greg Olson voted in favor of reducing the setback and eliminating the prime-soils criterion. Rural County Board members Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward voted against it.
“Sitting on the Planning Commission, I’m going to have to, of course, support the work the Planning Commission put into this and the recommendations that they came up with,” Jacob said. As far as helping farmers out by allowing them to diversify their income, there are a bunch of things the county does not let farmers do with farmland, such as mine frac sand or build rental homes. “To break from that and say that this one thing — solar panels — is different from the rest of the things that we’ve said that farmers can’t do with their property seems a little hypocritical,” he stated. “Let’s open up their economy and let them do everything with their property that they want to.”
“With respect to the examples you’ve given, the idea that we should allow everything or we should allow nothing doesn’t really make sense to me,” Meyer responded.
The criterion the Planning Commission approved would not stop a solar plant from being built on prime soils, it would just encourage developers to consider alternatives, Ward argued. As for whether perennial plantings improve soil health, it depends on how well the land is managed, she said. Referring to the invasive weed wild parsnip, Ward said, “That went rampant through land that wasn’t touched, that wasn’t tilled, that was set aside.” Whether setting land aside actually improves soil health, she stated, “It all comes down to management.”
Meyer said that the new solar ordinance includes several other provisions that are important. The new zoning ordinance now requires a decommissioning plan for solar plants and makes ensuring new solar plants do not cause stray voltage one of the criterion for their approval. The new rules also make it simpler and cheaper for homeowners to get permits to install small roof-mounted solar systems.