Supervisors mull solar panel ordinance concerns

Third reading of law is next week

With eyes on one of the first counties in Iowa to pass two ordinances allowing more widespread use of solar panels in agricultural zones, Webster County Supervisors tended to some concerns at a Thursday workshop before the law’s third reading next week.

Concerns from Supervisor Bob Thode and Planning & Zoning Commission member Margo Knipple included maintaining tax revenue with more solar farms, ensuring the county can implement restrictions and eminent domain.

The ordinances under consideration, hailed by the Iowa Environmental Council as a model that could be used across the state, would allow for the installation of solar generation stations, which typically appear over larger plots of land, and solar collection systems, which appear as accessories on roofs or building sides.

The stations and collection systems would be permitted in the county on a conditional use basis.

“My concern is what we can do to ensure revenue will still come in,” Thode said, with particular concern about public services that would be affected by a revenue shortfall.

Under the ordinance, tax revenue in agricultural zones would shift from the levy and valuation-based rates they typically pay to a rate based on the amount of kilowatt hours produced each year, an amount that Planning and Zoning Administrator Jeff Johnson said is expected to generate more revenue than the existing tax base from such properties.

To ensure that revenue is maintained, county officials said that conditional use permits could specify how much power has to be generated by the property covered by the permit. County Attorney Darren Driscoll said that the concern about revenue shouldn’t lead supervisors otherwise pleased with the ordinance to withhold their support, as parameters to each project can be fine-tuned to ensure consistent revenue. If a property failed to meet a specified threshold of power production, for example, the county could require that the system be decommissioned and the county be compensated for tax losses.

Knipple, echoing questions from other community members, had concerns that private companies acquiring the solar installations might have eminent domain claims to adjacent properties, should they want to expand.

Johnson said that such an expansion would nullify the conditional use permit issued, tailored to size and production levels. The county would have a chance to ask for new conditions with subsequent permits issued. Johnson said that permits would typically be issued with a defined time period, with clauses for optional extensions.

As far as legal claims to eminent domain, Driscoll said an argument that an adjacent piece of land is critical to a solar farm’s expansion is less compelling than the cases that typically make those claims, such as contiguous highways and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Solar farms don’t all need to be installed contiguously to work properly.

The county would also have more control over the proliferation of solar farms than they have had on the approval of hog confinements, Driscoll reasoned, comparing the level of control to those that some counties have exercised regarding wind farms.

“I’m looking to safeguard the county for the next 50 years so we don’t have to make amendments and play catch up,” Knipple said.

But writing a limit on solar permits into the ordinance before the county sees a reaction would “be taking a shot in the dark,” Driscoll said.

The pair of ordinances will be up for final consideration at the regular supervisors meeting on Tuesday at 10 a.m.


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