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Final stages passed for solar garden

Howard Stenerson (standing) discusses with county commissioners the impact his solar garden will have on the community. Kit Murray/Red Wing Republican Eagle

A divided Goodhue County Board approved a set of conditions April 4 for a controversial utility-scale solar project in Wacouta Township.

Under the motion approved 3-2, the Wildwood Community Solar Garden proposed a section of land between Highway 61 and Wildwood Lane southeast of Red Wing will need to include the purchasing of 1.5 acres of mitigation credits from wetlands in another part of the state to offset the impact to the local wetland.

A technical evaluation panel made up of representatives from the Soil and Water Conservation District, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and county staff recommended setting the condition at 2.99 acres of mitigation credits, though a majority of commissioners sided with the lower acreage requested by landowner Howard Stenerson and Minnesota-based solar developer GreenMark.

Commissioner Paul Drotos proposed 5.1 acres of wetland replacement, an average of four of the six options put before the board, throwing out the highest and the lowest options, but the idea failed to gain contraction. Drotos and Commissioner Brad Anderson provided the two dissenting votes.

"This would recognize all of the concerns of neighbors, whether geography or sympathy," Drotos said.

Township residents have raised a number of environmental and economic concerns about the solar garden, as well as said their voices have not been heard by local officials.

"It's our little piece of paradise and it's not going to be after this," said Brenda Collins, who lives near the proposed site.

Applicants plan to build a 5-megawatt solar garden built on slightly over 23 acres of wetland. Around nine of those acres are to be covered by some 22,000 solar panels.

Initially approved for a conditional-use permit in May 2016 by County Board, the project is now nearing an Xcel Energy deadline, as stated by John Herman, GreenMark's environmental lawyer on the project.

Commissioner Jason Majerus cited increased tax revenue for wanting to push the project forward.

"One of the main reasons is we're Goodhue County, we're open for business," Majerus said. "Let's welcome them here, fill the solar panels and taxes are payable twice a year."

The board also approved a condition requiring financial security to be put up to ensure wetland vegetation is maintained on the site. The county will be able to draw from the security dollars — set at 125 percent of the accepted bid from a SWCD-approved contractor — to perform remediation measures in the event the applicant fails to adhere to the project as proposed or violates regulations.

Tuesday's vote was the latest in a series of County Board actions that have paved the way for the project, including a zoning amendment in April 2016 to allow a utility-scale solar energy system to be permitted in a wetland. The issue was tabled at the March 21 board meeting to give commissioners more time to review the options.

The solar garden is one of several proposed in Goodhue County in recent years, part of a nationwide trend to take advantage of federal tax credits. It is the first in the county that would be located in a wetland.

Wacouta Town Board will discuss the project at 7 p.m. Monday, April 10, in the Town Hall.

Kit Murray

Kit Murray joined Red Wing Republican Eagle in Aug. 2016, covering government, transportation and public safety. She is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in photojournalism and philosophy. 

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