116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Progress on a 640-acre solar farm near Coggon — approved by the Linn County Board of Supervisors after contentious public meetings — is on hold while a court resolves a case brought against the supervisors by a family who lives near the planned project.
On Wednesday, the Iowa Utilities Board denied Coggon Solar LLC’s request for a certificate of public convenience, use and necessity until the court acts. The certificate is the permit that authorizes Coggon Solar LLC to operate a public facility within the area and is typically for public utilities or similar entities.
The utility-scale solar farm 3 miles west of Coggon is a partnership between Idaho-based Clenera and Central Iowa Power Cooperative named Coggon Solar LLC. The project, which would be dismantled after 35 years, is planned for land that property owners voluntary leased to Coggon Solar.
In January, the supervisors voted 2-1 to approve rezoning in 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.
In February, Martin Robinson, Paula Robinson, Tom Robinson and Laura Robinson filed an appeal and initiated a certiorari proceeding in Linn County District Court to challenge the zoning decision.
Certiorari is the court process of seeking judicial review of a decision of a lower court or government agency. The Iowa Supreme Court recognizes “that certiorari may be a proper remedy for reviewing the legality of decisions made by city councils and county board of supervisors in zoning matters.”
The Robinsons were present at all of the public solar meetings leading up to the decision, and voiced their concerns about solar panels being built on agricultural land as well as any property value impact and damage to drainage tile on farmers’ fields.
The family accuses the county supervisors of not following the land-use regulations of Linn County and Iowa Code, saying the material terms of the rezoning ordinance were repeatedly altered during meetings and therefore not considered three times as ordinances are required to be. They also argue the ordinance constitutes “spot zoning.“
Supervisor Chair Ben Rogers said the county’s attorneys will represent in district court how the process was open, transparent and in line with policy practices.
“All changes were communicated and made in open session when we were discussing these with the public,” Rogers told The Gazette. “We are confident the court will rule in our favor.”
Clenera Chief Executive Officer Jason Ellsworth told The Gazette on Thursday that Clenera expects the Coggon Solar project to reach full completion, despite the delay.
“This time is being used constructively while we continue to invest in the project and advance its timeline. It is evident that Linn County and the Board of Supervisors see the importance in this project that will bring clean energy, significant tax revenue and local jobs to Linn County and the state of Iowa,” Ellsworth said. “Clenera and Coggon Solar LLC have dedicated significant efforts to address the questions and concerns of Linn County residents and neighboring landowners. We are dedicated to making this project a success that will benefit Iowans.”
A court date has not yet been set.
“The next steps in this matter will be the resolution of the Linn County District Court case and the company’s filing with the IUB of proof of the final, unappealed decision,” utilities board communications specialist Melissa Myers said. “The Linn County District Court action the Robinsons brought against the Linn County Board of Supervisors is what must be final and unappealable.”
In October 2021, the board issued an order saying that a certificate would be issued upon the filing of “proof of a final, unappealable decision” from the supervisors approving the local zoning change.
In February, after the zoning was approved by county supervisors, Coggon Solar LLC filed a letter with a “proof of publication,” Coggon Solar concluded the letter by stating that it “looks forward to receiving its certificate.”
But then in March, the state regulators issued an order requesting additional information, stating that the text in the publication that Coggon Solar supplied was “too small to read.”
In June, the Robinsons filed a reply, contending the supervisor’s rezoning decision is not final and unappealable. In the filing, the family said that the “proper method for challenging (or appealing) a county zoning decision is through a certiorari action.”
Also in June, Coggon Solar filed a pleading arguing that it had achieved final zoning approval and that the certificate should be issued, allowing the project to move forward.
But the state board maintained than it had not been, and rejected the project’s request for a certificate “without prejudice” — meaning it could be filed again.
This all comes as the county is in the midst of another approval process for the planned Duane Arnold Solar project near Palo. The Florida-based NextEra submitted its application to the county in February for the two-phase project. If all is approved, the company plans to begin operation by the end of 2024.
Linn County Planning and Development Director Charlie Nichols said while the state board decision delays the Coggon project until the court is able to evaluate Robinson's petition, it will not affect the Palo process.
Last November, Alliant Energy filed a proposal to the utilities board to buy the project from NextEra and further develop it into the state’s largest solar and battery storage facility. If everything is approved, NextEra would develop and construct the solar facility, but Alliant would own and operate it. The board’s decision on that is expected later this year.
The process kicked off in May with a meeting of the county’s technical review committee and is set for a Planning and Zoning meeting on July 28.
The projects in question, Duane Arnold Solar I and II, would generate up to 200 megawatts combined. Duane Arnold Solar I would use 316 acres on an 857-acre area to place photovoltaic solar arrays capable of generating up to 50 MW. The larger Duane Arnold Solar II would use 815 acres of a 1,780-acre area, generating up to 150 MW. It would also have a 75-MW, four-hour battery energy storage facility.
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