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Judge dismisses Coggon solar lawsuit against Linn County
County officials hope decision signals Palo projects will get the go-ahead
CEDAR RAPIDS — Work on a 640-acre solar farm near Coggon may soon be underway after a Linn County District Court judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit brought against the county Board of Supervisors by a family living near the planned project.
The Coggon project was the first of three utility-scale solar projects the Linn County Board of Supervisors approved last year. As the other projects near Palo — called Duane Arnold Solar I and II — remain stalled in litigation, county officials were hopeful the win for the Coggon project signaled the court would rule favorably in the other cases, allowing the projects to advance.
Charlie Nichols, director of Linn County Planning & Development, said the decision was good news for the county, especially for the Duane Arnold projects, because the county used the same processes to advance those toward approval.
“It’s good that it was upheld and that our processes and the way we've permitted these was validated by the court,” Nichols said.
The plaintiffs have 30 days to appeal the court’s decision.
The utility-scale solar farm 3 miles west of Coggon is from Coggon Solar LLC, a partnership between Idaho-based Clenera and Central Iowa Power Cooperative. The project, which would be dismantled after 35 years, is planned for land that property owners voluntary leased to Coggon Solar.
In January 2022, the supervisors voted 2-1 to rezone the area to allow for the project. The approval meant that about 750 acres would be rezoned from agricultural to agricultural with a renewable energy overlay that expires after 35 years.
Martin Robinson, Paula Robinson, Tom Robinson and Laura Robinson filed an appeal and challenged the zoning decision in court. The Robinsons were present at all the public solar meetings leading up to the decision. They shared concerns about solar panels being built on agricultural land, potential impact to property value and damage to drainage tile on farmers’ fields.
The family alleged the supervisors did not follow the county and state land-use regulations, arguing the material terms of the rezoning ordinance were repeatedly altered during meetings and therefore were not considered three times as ordinances are required to be. They also argued the ordinance constituted “spot zoning.”
But the court determined the supervisors had access to land value reports, hydrology studies to consider subsurface drainage issues and studies showing the project’s environmental impact. There also were several conditions in place for the project to protect the neighbors, the land and environment, according to the court, such as setback provisions from neighboring property.
“A review of the substantial file establishes that the Board had sufficient information in front of it to determine this was an appropriate decision for the community as a whole,” Judge David Cox wrote.
The court also agreed with the county that all agricultural property is being uniformly zoned, as the county’s zoning ordinance shows utility-scale solar is permitted use for all agricultural zoned property.
In November, the Iowa Utilities Board approved Coggon Solar LLC’s request for a certificate of public convenience, use and necessity at the site.
The project was on hold pending the court’s ruling. Nichols said now that the court has ruled in the county’s favor and Coggon Solar LLC has its certificate of convenience from the Iowa Utilities Board, the project should be in the clear to start.
“I wouldn't be surprised if our office hears from them fairly soon about getting building permits and electrical permits to start preparing to do this project in the summer,” Nichols said.
Before issuing any building permits, Nichols said staff would ensure certain conditions are met such as mapping out the drainage tile systems. The project could be complete by this winter, he said, depending on the potential appeal process, supply chain issues or other factors.
The two projects near the decommissioned Duane Arnold Energy Center nuclear plant near Palo are stalled in a similar legal dispute filed by residents challenging the supervisors’ zoning decision. One would use 316 acres of an 857-acre area for a utility-grade solar installation, and the other would use 815 acres of a 1,780-acre area for the other, which would include a battery energy storage facility.
Last year, Alliant Energy filed a proposal with the Iowa Utilities Board to buy the NextEra project and develop it into the state’s largest solar and battery-storage facility. Alliant would own and operate it by the end of 2024.
A bill filed in the Iowa Senate, Senate Study Bill 1077, would prohibit setting up a commercially owned solar field on land suitable for agriculture within 150 feet of a neighboring property, or within 1,250 feet of a neighboring residence or livestock facility. Linn County’s ordinance requires a 300-foot setback from non-participating properties.
Nichols said because the Iowa Utilities Board already approved certificates of convenience for those projects, his understanding is that those could still proceed as planned, but the bill — if passed — would have implications for potential future phases of the Palo projects.
The county has placed a moratorium on new utility-scale solar projects through at least March while a review is underway on the county’s solar ordinance.
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