Large solar system gets permit

A sign marks the land on Oxford Avenue in Watertown Township, near the property being considered for a 4.9-megawatt solar system by NextEra and TruNorth. (Melissa Priebe/Carver County News)
A sign marks the land on Oxford Avenue in Watertown Township, near the property being considered for a 4.9-megawatt solar system by NextEra and TruNorth. (File photo)

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article inserted the incorrect name in the last eight graphs. The article has been corrected to show the proper commissioner names and the correct vote.  

Controversial decision draws ire from some

By Melissa Priebe
[email protected]

Potential traffic hazards and the impact on an equestrian business left local residents disappointed, after a proposal for a large solar energy system was approved for a parcel of land on Highway 7 in Watertown Township.

On Tuesday, Nov. 22, the Carver County Board voted to approve a Conditional Use Permit for a 4.4 megawatt solar system by NextEra and TruNorth on Bruce Lenzen’s property in Watertown Township.

The large-scale solar system, as defined by the Public Utilities Commission, will be installed on about 22 acres of the 68-acre parcel. It will include 17,604 solar panels, which will be set in a fixed tilt position and operated for 35 years, before they are decommissioned. The project combines a number of small solar gardens into one large system, narrowly fitting under new PUC guidelines for residential projects and qualifying for part of Xcel Energy’s Community Solar Garden initiative.

The solar project has been a subject of controversy for months, as the Carver County commissioners have heard hours of public testimony from both firm supporters and fierce opponents to the proposed project.

Among the issues residents and neighbors have raised are the agricultural nature of the property, the residential nature of the land, concerns about increased runoff, risks to the horses and riders that use the neighboring land owned by Mikal Hendrickson, and potential traffic hazards, such as glare from the solar panels during evening rush hour and the disruption of the traffic pattern on Highway 7, as commercial vehicles move through the area.

Slated to be built on a hilly section of agricultural land that faces Highway 7, the large solar system will be located next to a high-traffic corridor and adjacent to the equestrian business, where Buck Lake Stables has been offering board, lessons and riding for horses and their riders for 24 years.

After an introduction by staff at a special meeting of the Carver County Board, the adjacent business owner was the first to speak. Hendrickson presented the commissioners with a letter from a customer who left Buck Lake Stables due to the solar project, after sharing many more letters with commissioners outside of the meeting. Hendrickson has expressed concerns about the safety of both the horses and riders, as well as potential risks and insurance liability to his business. At least one customer has already left Buck Lake Stables, and he said many more customers are considering the move.

“We’ve got more people sitting on the fence,” said Hendrickson. “They’re going to be leaving Buck Lake Stables if this is passed today.”

Township officials have also expressed discontent, asking how traffic patterns can be regulated.

“At this point, the township has not changed it’s position,” said Watertown Township Supervisor Neil Johnson. “We still would like to see the permit denied.”

He said the residents and township officials have shown that the solar system is not in line with the 2030 Comprehensive Plan for Carver County. He also questioned the plans for traffic flow on Highway 7 while the project is under construction.

Included in the proposal are plans for a right-turn lane and plans to prohibit left turns by commercial vehicles approaching the land from the east. Johnson asked who would enforce the traffic route the companies planned to implement for the project, and he opined that Carver County would be responsible if the traffic changes led to an accident.

However, many concessions have been made on the part of the solar energy companies. Over the course of the year, NextEra and TruNorth have lowered and adjusted the acreage of the project, lowered the wattage that is planned for the site, committed to extensive landscaping and fencing in order to shield the project, and agreed to many other conditions as part of the Conditional Use Permit application process.

“I think we’ve submitted quite a lot in terms of testimony already and facts in the record already,” said Heather Everhart, representing NextEra. “We feel like we’ve adequately addressed those concerns.”

She went on to address concerns like runoff, new and existing drainage tiles, and the traffic patterns on Highway 7.

“We have experience in this area, and we will make sure that whatever gets approved by the county we follow,” said Everhart. “If contractors and suppliers are ordered to exit the highway from a certain exit and proceed down certain roads in certain directions, they will do so, or they’ll be in violation of their contract with us.”

Everhart said she thinks it is unfortunate to see this amount of alarm, which she attributed to the newness of solar energy projects. She offered to arrange for neighboring residents or horse riders to tour one of NextEra’s successful large-scale facilities, in order to quell their concerns.

“I’d like to put an image out there in folks’ minds,” said Everhart. “When I think of a fixed tile solar system, I think of maybe a row of greenhouses – something very static – that doesn’t move, and it’s made primarily of metal and glass. There’s nothing new or dangerous here.”

Throughout the months-long process, executives from NextEra and TruNorth have also come out to witness the discussion at Carver County Board meetings. Present for the approval was the owner of TruNorth, Martin Morud. He said he grew up with horses, and he implied that the project would not be harmful to the horses, and if it was, the company would mitigate any impacts.

“I’m happy to work with the Hendricksons and any of the other neighbors to usher in this compatible use,” he said. “I’m happy to do whatever I can to help ease [the impacts.]”

Understanding the direction the board was leaning, Kerry Hendrickson, Mikal’s wife, expressed disappointment in the process.

“One thing that I thought I understood was that if it was found that this project would be injurious to a neighboring property that that would mean that the solar company did not meet the requirements to have something this large pass through,” she said. “We have built a successful boarding stable business, and trained young kids, taught them how to ride, taught them how to work with their horse. It’s just heart-wrenching to think, that it would injure our business.”

She expressed sadness for the customers and staff who would be affected by the decision, based on the economic impact to Buck Lake Stables.

“This is significantly affecting our livelihood, our business, where we live,” she said. “It’s big government that they benefit, but the little guy doesn’t. I just can’t believe they’re going to get this passed.”

Attorney Patrick Neaton, representing residents of the township, said this is not an allowed use of the property and that the land of both Lenzen and neighboring landowners should be taken into account. He pointed out that county records, in terms of the Carver County Board meeting minutes, are not complete on the subject of the permit process.

“What it does not say is in September of this year, this board directed staff unanimously 5-0 to prepare findings for a resolution denying this application,” said Neaton. “I think that has been extremely significant.”

Local residents also questioned what happened to the recommendation to deny the CUP, but the county commissioners said they chose to pursue a different action after a closed meeting in September.

“Like solar or don’t like it, we still have a process,” said Commissioner Tom Workman. He expressed concern for the way solar proposals move through the government permitting process and urged his fellow commissioners to put new guidelines in place. “We may have approved these things erroneously. We’re skipping a major step in our county process to allow these.”

The commissioners noted that the comprehensive plans in place for the county are not taken lightly, but a few commissioners also asked questions of the county attorney and others to determine if they felt that solar systems were adequately addressed in the comprehensive plan. Throughout the public hearings, local residents have called attention to the 2030 Comprehensive Plan to show that large-scale solar systems are not an acceptable use of prime agricultural land in Carver County.

“In my 14 years of experience on the county board, I’ve never seen a court reporter in the room,” said Workman. “We did feel a threat of legal action including stated threats of violation of the open meeting law and other things. I know I have talked to other staff related to these that we’re likely going to be sued.”

County Attorney Mark Metz said that the 4.4 megawatt solar system would be considered an allowed use of the land “up to this stage,” but he said he was not an expert on the comprehensive plan.

“None of this to me really fits in here,” said Workman. “To me, threat of lawsuit or no, I’m going to vote no.”

Commissioner Tim Lynch echoed Workman’s thoughts.

“I feel that Mr. Hendrickson has done a wonderful job running his business for 24 years, and I believe it’s going to harm him, so I’m voting no,” said Lynch.

During the meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 22, the Carver County Board voted to approve the Conditional Use Permit for the solar system in Watertown Township. The vote was cast 3-2, with Commissioners Workman and Lynch voted against, and Commissioners James Ische, Gayle Degler and Randy Maluchnik voting in favor. Those voting in favor did not publicly comment on their vote during the meeting.

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