Goodhue County Planning Advisory Commission gave a unanimous thumbs-up Monday to ordinance amendments regulating solar energy systems, which at least two companies have shown interest in building in recent months.
The proposed rules lay out permitting requirements for residential, commercial and utility scale solar energy projects in the county’s various zoning districts as well as application instructions and definitions of key terms.
The vote came after an open house and public hearing that attracted about a dozen area residents. A handful of them took the opportunity to dig into specific language used in the amendments and express concern over a range of issues, including foreign ownership of projects and how to handle changes in size and energy output.
PAC member and County Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel said many of the concerns can be addressed through conditional-use permits, which allow the county to add stipulations to proposed projects as needed.
“I don’t know why we would want to prevent any of our folks in the county — farmers, residents — from being able to pursue this,” Rechtzigel said in response to public comments. He added that he received no calls or emails leading up to Monday’s meeting from people opposed to solar energy.
Belvidere Township Supervisor Alan Breuer was the only person from the public Monday to speak in favor of a less-restrictive ordinance, saying the county should instead be encouraging residents to install solar energy systems.
County ordinance currently does not include permitting of solar energy, but Zoning Administrator Mike Wozniak said some systems have been approved in the past as accessory use. He said the potential scale of projects could now constitute primary use of land, creating a need for regulations.
Under the proposed ordinance, solar energy systems operating below the threshold regulated by the state would require a permit from the county. The type of permit depends on the size of the project and the zoning district it would be located in.
No solar energy system would be allowed in wetland districts, and utility scale projects would not be permitted near suburban residences, commercial recreation and floodplain areas.
The PAC recommended two additions to the draft ordinance exempting small solar energy systems under 200 watts from the permit requirement and removing references to reflecting systems, a relatively uncommon type of solar energy system that uses mirrors to focus sunlight on a collector.
Wozniak said the interest shown in Goodhue County so far involves photovoltaic systems using traditional solar panels.
The proposed ordinance and the PAC’s recommendations will go before the County Board and another public hearing next month.