Solar farm plan raises eyebrows in Wyoming ; Potential site is prime commercial land

A solar power project may be headed to Wyoming – but not in a place the city is necessarily excited about.
The site for the proposed Aurora Distributed Solar Project is south of 250th Street and east of Maranatha Church, and an abutting site, east of U.S. Highway 61 and south of Maranatha. The site was selected because it is close to the power substation at the intersection of Highway 61 and 250th Street. The combined area is 66 acres.
The area is currently owned by a private party and would still need to be purchased by power company Geronimo Energy before a “solar farm” could be developed. The city’s problem, according to Planning and Zoning Administrator Fred Weck, is that the location Geronimo is thinking about developing is, essentially, too good.
“It’s one of our best places (for future commercial development),” Weck said, noting that a number of features of the site leave it prime land for incoming businesses. “It’s along Highway 61; it’s not affected by wetlands.”
The solar project is one of several planned for various sites around Minnesota after a state government mandate that power providers gradually rely more on renewable sources of energy. After the project was introduced, the city wrote a letter of support for the overall plan based on decisions made at the December 3, 2013, council meeting, pending more information. Weck said the support at the time could be seen as philosophical, but back then, the city did not know exactly where in town Geronimo wanted to build. The preferred location was announced last summer.
“There were areas over there that would have worked out,” Weck said.
The potential problems Wyoming has with the project are twofold. First, the Wyoming Comprehensive Plan designates the potential solar site to be zoned mixed use in the future. With its visible land, lack of building issues and the ease with which city water can be put on the site, Weck said, it would be a prime location for commercial and high-density residential locations – ones that would potentially create more draw and higher tax revenues than a solar farm would. There are only 258 acres in the city zoned as mixed use, and the solar farm would eat up 66 acres of that amount while potentially restricting development in another 61 acres for the lifetime of the solar site (about 25 years).
The second problem is that, if Geronimo decides to buy the land and build the site and the Public Utilities Commission approves the plan, the city has essentially no say in the matter other than a public comment period. According to Minnesota State Statute 216E, Weck explained, the power facilities like Geronimo’s aren’t subject to local zoning authority.
In a Feb. 18 letter to Dr. Burl W. Harr, executive director of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, Wyoming Mayor Eric Peterson summed up the city’s issues with the solar farm.
“Another concern the city has is that MN Statute 216E.05 allows the applicant (Geronimo Energy) to bypass any local approval for their proposal in the City of Wyoming as well as throughout the State,” he wrote. “Although the City can comment during the public comment period, the Statute gives local communities no control as to where or how the proposed site will be developed.”
Further, he added, “the city is not opposed to the development of land in the city for a solar project, or other sustainable energy resources, when the city is actively involved in the approval process, and when the proposed site is located in an area that does not negatively affect the interests of the city and its residents.”
Regulations about this new technology are not yet part of the city’s ordinances. According to Weck, the city’s Planning Commission is in the process of writing an addition to Chapter 40 of the ordinances to include a section on standards, definitions, for solar energy systems, solar energy farms, for installation and use in the city of Wyoming.
Representatives of Geronimo Energy did not respond to interview questions by press time.
Other business
During a March 17 council work session, city officials had further discussion about establishing a street light utility, applying charges for street lighting to those who benefit. Craig Mattson, city administrator, explained that in the past, street lights have been paid through the general fund. The city also pays Xcel for traffic signals in the city. According to Mattson, accountant Brenda Frechette has discovered that franchise fees are associated with some lights. Wyoming residents with Forest Lake addresses pay these fees.
Discussion also touched on residents in the areas of the city with no street lights who contribute to pay light bills for the entire city. Frechette is working at untangling how the charges are assigned. Councilwoman Linda Nanko Yeager believes there might be pushback from those who have the street lights. Mattson reported that Woodbury charges residents based on the benefits of lighting density in their neighborhoods.
The stormwater utility fee was also discussed at the work session. Currently, the $8 per quarter charge is inadequate to operate the stormwater system. The utility covers maintenance and repair of drainage areas, replacement of pipelines for stormwater collection, culvert repair, street sweeping, development and updates of the wetland management area, updates of the watershed management plan, administrative costs, and mandates from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. There will be further discussions.