ZBA endorses single solar permit

If the results of the Piatt County zoning board of appeals meeting Oct. 25 were listed in the form of sports standings, they would show a record of 1-1-1: One special use permit for a solar community farm was approved, another defeated, and another ending in a 2-2 tie during a five-hour meeting.

Box score details would indicate the board favored the more remotely located project near DeLand, was split on the farm near an 11-home rural subdivision on Route 150 on the Piatt/Champaign County line, and gave a clear thumbs down to a third proposal that is being proposed just southeast of Monticello.

It is now up to the county board on Nov. 14 to consider action on the recommendations, which included a 3-1 vote by the ZBA to recommend approval of a permit for 329 Frontier Piatt to construct a 4 megawatt capacity solar farm on 46.88 acres of farmland southwest of DeLand.

The vote marks the first solar farm approval for the ZBA since the county adopted a solar farm amendment on Sept. 12. All projects are likely contingent on the receipt of state energy credits, which will not be known until after Jan. 15 of next year.

Borrego Solar, the developer of the DeLand area project that was approved on Thursday, had tweaked its permit request after it was tabled by the zoning board in August. Included in the update was an extensive drainage plan that will reroute and replace drain tiles before sunlight-gathering panels would be installed. The firm also conducted a glare study and real estate research they say show there would be little impact to neighboring farmers and valuable Piatt County farmland.

It was this last promise regarding farmland preservation that helped convince ZBA Chairman Loyd Wax, who noted the initial 25-year agreement on the solar farm means the land would not be taken out of production forever.

“Are we talking about taking good land out of practice forever? No,” said Wax. “We’re talking about a good ground cover, perhaps a pollinator friendly thing, for 20, 30, maybe 40 years. And virtually all of the conservation people that I am associated with say the land should be in better shape at that point with better organic matter than it is at this time.”

But most of the two hours of testimony that preceded the vote on 329 Frontier Piatt featured criticism of the project, a majority of that coming from the Swartz family that farms the area and their attorney Kevin Nolan.

Jeff Swartz is the closest neighbor at 1,650 feet away from the proposed solar site.

He thought that, at the very least, the location could be moved closer to the transmission lines, which would be more out of sight from his home. But that would place it closer to a Huisinga homestead, the family that would lease the land to Borrego if it comes to fruition.

“Why is this here?” said Swartz, noting it is located far from the Huisinga home. “I’ve asked this question and I don’t get an answer. So it tells me that they just want all the financial rewards and no cost whatsoever.”

There was also debate on the impact of solar farms on neighboring land values that permeated all three permit requests. Part of Borrego’s presentation came from CohnReznick Appraiser Patricia McGarr, who said studies of solar farms in other areas of the nation show the impact on property values is neutral – no positive or negative impacts, according to her research.

She added that, in some cases, landowners put up substantial new homes next door to solar facilities, which in her mind shows “this is a clear indication that the market does not view this as something that would deter from investing in homes.”

McGarr also called 10 county assessors, who unanimously said they had not “received any negative impacts” from solar farms in their area.

But Cal Holmes, the owner of one of 11 homes that would be located about 100 feet from the proposed Madden Creek project on the Piatt/Champaign County line, said his informal poll of three area realtors tells a different story.

“Two of the realtors felt like there would be a decline in the value of my home,” Holmes said in a scenario of a solar farm going up next door. “Five thousand to $10,000 are the numbers they came up with.” The third realtor did not want to put a number on it, but Holmes claimed his trio of experts all agreed a solar farm “would not be a positive selling point” for adjacent homes.

He also thought the project stood a better chance if it were further away from the Sunrise Terrace houses.

“I have trouble because we’re 100 feet away. There has to be a better location.”

He also criticized McGarr’s study for using out-of-state information. She responded that there are no figures available yet for this area since the solar era is in its infancy in Central Illinois.

Like 329 Frontier, developers for Madden Creek Solar had gone back to the drawing board after their permit request was tabled Aug. 23. They added more flora to the plan to shield the solar farm further, promised to fix a faulty field tile located on the 30-acre site, and moved the access road from County Road 1500 North to Sunrise Terrace Court.

As a concession for using the same road as the subdivision, Ben Adamich of Geronimo Energy said the street would also be fixed and upgraded to “meet Blue Ridge Township road standards.”

But those promises were not enough for the zoning board to completely overcome concerns for a project that is slated for a more densely populated area than other requests, and the vote on the Madden Creek SUP tied 2-2, with Jerry Edwards and Jim Harrington voting ‘no’.

Edwards noted the county still needs to be open minded on the issue of solar farms, especially with the state offering incentives to meet a goal of providing 25 percent of the state’s electrical capacity via alternative energy by the year 2025.

“We need to remember that the state of Illinois wants by 2025 for 25 percent of the power in the state to be produced liked this. It’s got to come from someplace,” commented Edwards, though he added it should ideally come from the least “objectionable” sites as possible.

And despite a comprehensive code that values farmland above all else in non-municipal areas of Piatt County, Wax pointed out that alternative energy was also added in a 2010 update.

“The Piatt County Comprehensive Plan is primarily and almost solely designed to farm this fine farmland, some of the best farmland we can find,” said Wax. “However, if you go back to the plan as revised in 2010, there’s a section that talks about renewable energy. It starts off talking about biofuels. There’s a section about solar, it does not talk negatively about it, and indicates that this is going to need to be done in the future somewhere, sometime.”

But for neighbors of the proposed projects, they would rather see such efforts land outside of their view, even if the idea of renewable energy appeals to them.

“I think sustainable energy is a good thing, but I think it needs to be done right, and I think it needs to be done in the right places,” said Colleen Killion in opposition to the most recent request by ASD Solar for a smaller, 1.5 megawatt solar site on 18 acres near Monticello.

But Nolan said that farmland preservation should be at the forefront of their decisions.

“To use this soil for anything but farming is almost a waste of raw material,” he said.

After hearing from several neighbors regarding the application, the board voted 4-0 against granting ASD a special use permit.

The county board has the last say on all of the requests, and could follow the ZBA’s lead, reverse them, or table requests, the latter being the method used on a US Solar request that will push it back to the November zoning session.




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