116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It seems a utility-scale solar moratorium is in Linn County’s near future.
The Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended the Board of Supervisors approve the moratorium. The commission voted 6-0 to recommend approval during its meeting on Monday night.
The proposed moratorium, if approved, would be in effect for 12 months, or whenever the code is changed if it’s sooner. A moratorium would allow current projects already approved to continue, but the county would not be accepting new applications during the time period.
The supervisors’ votes on a moratorium will happen in October. It will take three readings from the supervisors to take effect.
“Our code language is good language. Most of the jurisdictions that have codes like ours are similar or less robust,” County Planning and Development Director Charlie Nichols said. “Nationally, it is good code. But staff recommends approval because we can make it better. My hope is we come out of this with a model not just for Iowa, but all across the nation.”
In 2013, when the county’s solar ordinance initially was adopted, a decision on any large-scale solar project would have been made by the county’s Board of Adjustment, made up of non elected individuals, and could have been decided during one meeting.
The ordinance has since been amended twice to give county supervisors the final say after a series of public meetings. The ordinance could be amended again without the moratorium.
The supervisors have also approved multiple utility-scale solar projects this year. The vote for each project was 2-1 with Supervisor Louie Zumbach voting against them. The most recent was NextEra’s Duane Arnold projects near Palo. Back in January, the Clenera-based Coggon project was also approved.
“We’ve learned a lot and we want to take those lessons and put them in our code,” Nichols said. “We want to look at vegetation under the solar panels, we want to take a closer look at screening. We want a more standardized approach with battery-storage systems because that’s not in our code and it needs to be.”
Staff has previously recommended moratoriums twice but have been voted down 2-1. Previously, Zumbach was the only supervisor to support a moratorium.
Supervisor Chair Ben Rogers told The Gazette on Tuesday that he is in support of a moratorium this time around.
“Last time we were discussing this, it was still during the legislative session and there were bills that would have created a 1,250-foot setback distance and there was language in there about only doing it on land with a certain corn suitability rating, so if we did a moratorium, the legislature might've seized upon that and created bills that would've made it impossible,” Rogers said. “But now that we've approved projects, it's incumbent on us to pause and evaluate and that's why I'm going to support it. The legislature did not pass any bills and we don’t have any solar applications pending.”
Zumbach told The Gazette that he thinks the moratorium should have been approved from the beginning.
“I think we need to be considerate of the people who live around solar projects. I think setbacks and screening plans could be more firm,” Zumbach said. “There are a lot of things we could put in an ordinance to benefit Linn County and we should’ve been doing that from the start.”
Nichols, Rogers and Zumbach all said they envision bringing together residents to form working groups to help craft any future policy on the issue.
“I do anticipate making working groups looking at all of the areas and I’d like to involve the public, but I don’t know what that looks like,” Nichols said. “I don’t want political groups. I want them to be solution oriented.”
Zumbach said if he had it his way, the county ordinance would be a package that could be presented to potential utility-scale solar developers and they would have to decide whether or not it works for them.
“They could look at it and either take it or leave it,” Zumbach said. “We should be telling them how to do it. I want the dog to wag the tail instead of the tail wagging the dog.”
Rogers said he also wants more communication with other communities that have similar projects.
“There aren’t many projects to look ahead to in general. Linn County is part of being on the leading edge of utility-scale solar,” Rogers said. “Right now, I feel the process has put citizens against experts and I want to make sure we are making the most informed decisions but also getting the citizen feedback to find out if there are better ways to do this in our community and have that community buy-in.”
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