Solar Farm Plans Stalled After County Board Vote

(Photo: Breanna Grow/AdaptBN)

(Photo: Breanna Grow/AdaptBN)

McLean County’s fifth planned solar farm hit a snag Tuesday morning after County Board officials voted 11-5 to send the developer’s application back to the Zoning Board of Appeals for further review.

Minneapolis, Minnesota-based renewable energy developer Geronimo Energy plans to build two 2-megawatt facilities across 77 acres of farmland in Funks Grove Township.

Developments of this scale have so far faced little to no opposition in the county. Officials approved applications for four other 2-megawatt facilities earlier this year, all submitted by developer Cypress Creek Renewables.

District 1 Representative Catherine Metsker (R) asked that Geronimo’s application return to the ZBA over concerns the document was incomplete.

“This application had serious omissions,” Metsker said, calling the developer’s decommissioning plan inadequate and noting the names and contact information of company representatives were missing from the safety plan.

Members of the ZBA unanimously recommended the application for approval June 5, but not before adopting nine staff recommendations as stipulations to the project.

County Building and Zoning Director Phil Dick told the Board that staff did find the developer’s original application to be incomplete -- that’s why they made the recommendations.

Dick also said the project’s decommissioning plan is consistent with those of the four other developments already approved. As for the missing emergency contacts, Dick said the developer plans to submit that information after the application is approved.

Staff and Board members noted Geronimo wouldn’t be issued any building permits until all nine stipulations were met, but that wasn’t enough reassurance for District 9 Representative Susan Schafer (R).

“If we start doing that, what kind of precedent are we going to set? We need to make sure we know what we’re approving and that things have been done correctly from the get-go.”

Metsker also voiced concerns the project would take several acres of fertile soil out of crop production.

“This is a pivotal precedent,” she said. “Allowing a solar farm on prime land will escalate the destruction of other farmland in the county.”

Metsker worried the continued practice would mean increased competition among farmers, creating an artificial spike in cash rent values at neighboring properties.

However other Board members noted renewable energy can provide regular income for otherwise struggling farmers.

“I think given the challenges farmers face...this is a nice sustainable revenue source,” said District 8 Representative Carlo Robustelli (D). “It makes sense to me that farmers would think about diversifying what they’re harvesting.”

“A farmer needs to have an opportunity to increase his income if he can,” District 2 Representative and Board Vice Chairman Jim Soeldner (R) agreed.

For developer Geronimo Energy, that’s part of the idea behind seeking to develop solar in farm communities.

“Geronimo believes it is not only a renewable energy developer but also a rural economic developer,” said Geronimo Energy Director of Marketing and Communications Lindsay Smith in an email last month. “By reinvesting in our local cities and towns, Geronimo and community members will invigorate the local economy and will build stronger rural communities.”

Smith said Geronimo plans to market the Funks Grove project to residents as a community solar project under the Illinois Adjustable Block Program, where utility customers can subscribe to receive a credit on their monthly electric bill.

The company has developed over 140 megawatts of community solar projects, with another 50 megawatts under development.

The Funks Grove project would generate enough energy to power around 870 homes a year, with construction expected to begin next spring.

Smith said the developer takes a farm-friendly approach with many of its staff members coming from farming and agriculture backgrounds, including its founder and chairman Noel Rahn.

As for choosing where to develop, Smith said access to existing electrical infrastructure, flat contiguous land and a willing and supportive community and landowner group are all key considerations for locating new solar projects.

“In most parts of the country, solar energy projects are considered agricultural use,” said Smith. “As solar becomes more prevalent in rural areas, more and more communities are recognizing solar as a key part of the agricultural economy.

What’s Next: The ZBA will meet again July 3 in Room 400 of the Government Center, 115 E. Washington St., Bloomington.