Solar array

Solar arrays billed as “solar gardens,” such as this one near Winsted, have popped up around McLeod County over the past few years. The issue continues to be one that brings about long discussions, questions and concerns.

At its regular meeting this past week, the McLeod County Board again weighed in on the contentious issue of solar panels.

With a 3-2 vote, board members approved a conditional-use permit for Scott Tempel on behalf of Novel Energy Solutions for a one-megawatt community solar garden array system, which would be used to generate electricity for Xcel Energy. The project is planned for 10.5 acres on a 65-acre parcel on the land of Simon Sterner in Section 2 of Winsted Township, within 2 miles of Winsted.

The Winsted Township Board recommended denial, and the city of Winsted submitted a letter and resolution in opposition due to plans for city growth. However, the county’s Planning Advisory Commission recommended approval in a 4-1 vote. The permit comes with requirements for safety, erosion prevention and sightliness.

Neighbors told the County Board in letters and statements they were worried about land values, an unsightly view and pollution from the array into a county ditch. A representative of Novel Energy Solutions said screening will be provided with numerous spruce trees and bushes, and that the site will not create problems for future Winsted growth, as the 10.5 acres will be in use for 25 years, while Winsted’s growth plan ranges 20-40 years.

Winsted City Administrator Adam Birkholz said the land is surrounded on three sides by Winsted residential districts, which are slated for growth in the near future due to growth in the city’s industrial sector. Solar is not considered by the city to be compatible with a residential district.

The landowner told board members the family wanted to continue farming on their land and maintain it for that purpose, but the acres they planned to use for a solar array were not feasible for production due to the ditch and a fence. A solar array would help to maintain the farm’s income.

County Board Member Nathan Schmalz said if the city had been aware a solar array was on the way sooner, it would have pushed to annex the land — a process it had held off on out of respect to the township following previous annexation.

“We are on the verge of expansion,” he said. “Winsted is in a growth area. I don’t see this approval as being a worthy request.”

McLeod County Attorney Michael Junge advised board members to make their decision based on the county ordinance. He also noted a previous, similar request regarding a solar array had been denied due to the issue of property values, only for a court of appeals to determine the reasoning was insufficient.

Board Member Paul Wright admitted the County Board had a lot to weigh between the worries of neighbors, including those of stray voltage. But, he added, “This is the landowner’s choice of what do they want to do with their land.”

Ultimately, board members Wright, Doug Krueger and Joe Nagel voted to approve the request, while Schmalz and Daryl Luthens opposed it.

The County Board also approved a second application with conditions. This one was also from Novel Energy for a one-megawatt solar garden on property of Chad Stuewe in Section 6 of Helen Township. The Helen Township Board recommended approval, as did the county’s Planning Advisory Commission.