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Linn County likely to extend solar moratorium through June
Committees reviewing county solar ordinance close to finishing recommendations
CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County will likely continue its pause on new utility-scale solar installations through June.
The Linn County Board of Supervisors discussed Monday whether to extend its moratorium on new large-scale solar projects as renewable energy review committees wrap up their work to study the county ordinance governing the solar projects. A final vote on the extension is slated for Wednesday.
The supervisors originally adopted the moratorium in October to last through Dec. 31, with the option to extend it up to three times through 2023 while the review is underway. They extended it previously through March.
The moratorium does not affect the already-approved solar projects near Palo and Coggon, which remain underway. But applications for new projects will not be taken until the pause is over.
The review committees convene to make recommendations to the county planning and zoning commission about potential changes to the current solar ordinance. Planning and zoning would then vote whether to recommend changes to the supervisors. Any potential changes would not apply to previously approved projects.
County Planning and Development Director Charlie Nichols said the four committees began to meet in January focused on specific areas:
- Battery energy storage systems: Safety of the public and first responders, environmental standards, applicable building codes, example zoning code.
- Good neighbor practices: Mitigating conflicts between utility-scale solar uses and residential uses. Balancing setback, screening and sound requirements.
- Life cycle costs: Ensuring adequate financial assurance over the lifetime for projects, ensuring the cost of returning the ground to farmland are adequately estimated.
- Balancing agriculture and solar: Region-appropriate vegetation requirements, agricultural impact mitigation plan requirements, score cards.
Recommendations the Good Neighbor Practices Committee is looking to make, Nichols said as an example, are that:
- Verification and enforcement methods for projects such as setbacks, sound, landscaping should be clearly spelled out in the ordinance.
- Policy should have baseline requirements to protect county residents and mitigate impacts to adjacent landowners, while keeping flexibility as every project is different. A “points” system, like the Land Evaluation and Site Assessment system used to evaluate other developments within the county, should be considered as a good model.
“There’s a wide range of opinions, but they have worked together extremely well,” Nichols said of the committees’ work.
Supervisor Kirsten Running-Marquardt said she thinks the idea of a “points” system is a “brilliant path to go down in evaluating projects.”
“Who knows how many more projects we’ll have, so I think something like this will help us find a balanced approach for Linn County,” Running-Marquardt said.
Nichols said the committees should be done meeting within the next two to three weeks. Their statements will be posed on the committees’ website and placed on the board agenda to seek comment from supervisors.
Based on supervisors’ feedback, Planning and Development will draft updates. Ordinance changes will be given to the planning and zoning commission, which will then vote on final changes to recommend to the supervisors.
“All of that will likely take longer than three months,” Nichols said, seeking an extension. “I don’t anticipate us receiving another utility-scale solar project before then.”
Running-Marquardt indicated she’d support an extension of the moratorium.
“To protect our citizens and our county here, I think the fair and reasonable thing would be moving forward to allow you all to have the time without us worrying if somebody might drop an application that would fall under the old rules and the old code and would negate all this good work that we’re doing collaboratively right now,” Running-Marquardt said.
Supervisor Louie Zumbach said it seems the committees’ review is well on track toward completion. With Supervisor Ben Rogers absent, though, he tabled a vote on the moratorium extension until Wednesday’s formal session.
In a statement Rogers shared with his elected colleagues before the meeting, he wrote that after consulting with Nichols, he felt it was prudent to extend to moratorium so modified ordinance language can go through the planning and zoning process and come before the supervisors.
“We are at the finish line, and extending the moratorium is to safeguard the county and ensure future applications are subject to the changes the Board of Supervisors adopts with an improved ordinance,” Rogers said.
The supervisors in 2022 approved three utility-scale solar projects — one near Coggon and two related projects near the decommissioned Duane Arnold Energy Center nuclear plant. The vote for each project was 2-1, with Supervisor Louie Zumbach opposed.
Neighbors sued over both projects. In February, a Linn County District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit against supervisors over the 640-acre solar farm near Coggon.
The utility-scale solar farm three 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 voluntarily leased to Coggon Solar.
In January 2022, the supervisors voted 2-1 to rezone about 750 acres from agricultural to agricultural with a renewable energy overlay that expires after 35 years, allowing for the project. Martin Robinson, Paula Robinson, Tom Robinson and Laura Robinson, who live near the site, filed an appeal and challenged the zoning decision in court.
Nichols said it’s unclear when that project will start, but Clenera can begin at any time.
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