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Permits for solar gardens allowed in wetlands

Goodhue County commissioners listen to public comments Tuesday in Kenyon City Hall regarding amendments to the zoning ordinance to allow permitting of utility scale solar energy systems in wetland and shoreland areas. Several Wacouta Township residents made the trip to speak against the changes and a proposed solar garden between Highway 61 and Wildwood Lane. (photo by Michael Brun)

KENYON — A proposed solar garden in Wacouta Township got a thumbs-up Tuesday from Goodhue County Board, but the controversial project will have to pass state and federal wetland regulations before installation can begin.

Commissioners voted 4-1 to amend the county zoning ordinance to allow permitting of utility scale solar energy systems in shoreland and wetland areas, contrary to a recommendation made by the Planning Advisory Commission last week.

Landowner Howard Stenerson requested the change to put in 28 acres of solar panels on property between Highway 61 and Wildwood Lane southeast of Red Wing. A portion of the project is expected to be on wetlands.

The PAC recommended denying the request in part due to a lack of information on the impact of solar energy systems on wetlands and shorelands.

County Board also voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve an interim-use permit for the solar garden to expire in 30 years.

Commissioners cited reluctance to outright ban projects on taxpayer property, favoring instead to allow applicants to go through permitting and review processes.

“It is not just the County Board that’s going to decide what happens with wetlands,” Board Chair Dan Rechtzigel said. “There are going to be a lot of people who are going to weigh in, and I would hope with all the rules and regulations in place that there is enough oversight to protect those sensitive habitats that are out there.”

The project will be reviewed by a technical evaluation panel once an application is submitted to Goodhue County Soil and Water Conservation District, said Beau Kennedy, SWCD water planner and wetland administrator. Included on the panel would be representatives from the state Board of Water and Soil Resources and Department of Natural Resources.

The panel would deliver a recommendation to Kennedy, who then would make a decision to approve or deny the project within 60 days of receiving the application.

The solar garden proposal has attracted strong criticism from Wacouta residents who say the project would be detrimental to the environment and aesthetics of the area and reduce surrounding property values.

Stenerson contends solar energy systems could enhance habitat in certain farmed or damaged wetlands by promoting the return of native grasses.

He plans to work with Ameresco and Minnesota-based solar developer GreenMark to install a 5 megawatt solar garden. The companies say the project would produce enough electricity to power 750 homes.

Commissioner Brad Anderson, who voted against both motions, said more study is needed.

“I think to do this right now is a little premature,” he said of the ordinance amendment.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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