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Supervisors OK solar panel ordinances

After three readings, Webster County Supervisors approved a pair of ordinances Tuesday to allow use of solar panels in agricultural zones.

Ordinance 2020-04 amends Webster County’s Comprehensive Plan by adding solar generation stations as a compatible use for properties with the agricultural preservation, transitional agriculture and mineral extraction designations.

Ordinance 2020-05 will amend articles 2, 4 and 8 of the county’s zoning ordinance to define and regulate the use of solar collection systems and solar generation stations.

The ordinances were passed unanimously, with Supervisor Keith Dencklau abstaining.

The ordinances enabling the building of solar farms will be permitted with a conditional use permit, which can be tailored to a variety of factors, including a minimum kilowatt hour production each year.

Minimum production values helped ease concern from some supervisors nervous about a change in tax revenue. Research from the Iowa Department of Revenue previously indicated that tax revenue going from a levy and valuation basis to a production basis would likely increase.

Other concerns addressed before this week’s vote included eminent domain and the potentially undesirable proliferation of solar farms in a way similar to hog confinements or wind farms. The conditional use permit would give the county more control over this type of installation, supervisors were told.

“All this is doing is allowing solar in this zoning,” said Supervisor Mark Campbell. “Each project still has to apply for a conditional use permit.”

Planning and Zoning Administrator Jeff Johnson said conditions will be crafted to the satisfaction of the county prior to approval.

For example, a company wishing to drastically change their footprint with solar installations would need to apply for a new permit. If the county came to an understanding that it was too saturated with solar farms, they could theoretically decline to approve new permits.

The ordinances were hailed by the Iowa Environmental Council as a model that could be used across the state to allow 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 flat and typically unencumbered nature of rural land in Webster County makes it optimal for solar operations, according to Johnson. When operations are finished or required to be dismantled, land can easily be returned back to use for farming or mineral extraction, with minimal environmental impact.

Decommissioning periods in the latter ordinance were reduced from one year to 180 days prior to approval Tuesday, with an option 90-day extension.

Solar energy production in Iowa has grown from around two megawatts in 2012 to about 115 today, according to the Lyons, Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. Spurring that may be the fact that costs for developing utility-scale solar energy declined 89% from 2009 to 2019.

“Using just 21 of Iowa’s 55,857 square miles of land for solar photovoltaic (installations) would provide 10% of Iowa’s electricity needs,” according to the center’s letter to supervisors.

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