MANKATO — A surge in solar arrays just north of Mankato has prompted Lime Township to put a moratorium on the green power developments.
Impact Power Solutions gained approval of a pair of 1-megawatt community solar gardens in Lime Township last month and also purchased land for a third within Mankato city limits on the city’s far north side. The latest proposal is another 1-megawatt community solar garden in the township near the junction of Lime Valley Road and Third Avenue/Blue Earth County Road 5.
Township Supervisor Rick Resch appears to be reaching his solar limit.
“I’m a believer in solar, but I’m not a believer in solar on every single parcel in every single place,” Resch said last week at a meeting of the Mankato Planning Commission, which also serves as the Lime Township Planning Commission. “So I just want to pause for real thinking and consideration of — does this fit the property?”
The latest IPS solar garden was already in line for approval when the Lime Township Board passed the interim ordinance shutting off any new community solar gardens as it decides what sorts of permanent restrictions to put in place. Because of that, the board stated that the pending IPS project would not be bound by the moratorium.
The Planning Commission agreed unanimously, recommending the Township Board approve the project, albeit with a lengthy list of conditions.
Several neighbors are opposed to the solar array, which will be made up of about 3,800 photovoltaic panels placed on a portion of a 7.3-acre parcel owned by Tim Vetter.
The opposition centered on the appearance of the array, partly because the rows of panels will sit just east of the federally designated Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway, which follows Third Avenue/Blue Earth County Road 5/Le Sueur County Road 21 between Mankato and Kasota.
Cindi Baker, who owns one of the roughly 30 homes within a half-mile of the planned array, described the area as befitting a scenic byway designation.
“It’s unique. It’s beautiful. (A solar array) should not be there,” Baker said. “… Go find a 40-acre parcel in the back where nobody can see it — not a national scenic byway.”
Associate Director of Planning Mark Konz said the scenic byway designation doesn’t carry any enforcement powers prohibiting what develops along it, although one of the conditions placed on IPS is that it submit “a viewshed analysis and provide a plan to minimize visual impacts” to the byway. Konz also noted that it might be difficult for the township to suddenly reject a proposed development because of the scenic byway designation after previously approving numerous residential, commercial and industrial projects along the route.
Patrick Wier of IPS said the Roseville-based company already has made significant changes to its plans that “go above and beyond” the two similar-size projects approved by the township in February near Highway 22 north of Mankato.
Black Hills spruce and Austrian spruce will be planted between public roads and the array — 26 on the eastern side near Lime Valley Road, 40 on the north side near the junction of Lime Valley and Third Avenue, and about 50 on the western side along Third Avenue. The trees were doubled on the latter side to address the concerns related to the scenic byway and homeowner views.
“On that side, you’ll have a tree every 8 feet,” Wier said. “So as they grow, you’d just have a continuous block.”
Wier said Vetter, the landowner, also persuaded IPS to supply prairie grass seed for the area between the trees and Third Avenue, which Vetter has committed to plant and care for.
Vetter, who said the tall prairie grass also should help block the view of the solar panels, portrayed the income from the solar project as important to his transition into retirement. But he pledged to continue to be a good neighbor.
“It’s a little different view than what the people might be used to,” Vetter said. “We’ve all been in the neighborhood long enough, they’ll know I’ll do everything I can to mitigate this project and the view as they drive by.”
Baker wasn’t placated by the promised plantings, which also will include pollinator-friendly wildflowers within the solar array itself.
“Plant the trees, plant the grass, but there’s still a solar garden there,” she said.
The Lime Township Board is expected to make a final decision on the project at its April 13 meeting. IPS hopes to start construction that same month with completion by December.
Along with the three rural solar arrays in Lime Township, a spate of arrays are popping up within city limits after the city sold nearly 80 acres of land on its north side in the past five years for a series of community solar gardens.
Community solar gardens, which were created by a 2013 Minnesota law, allow individuals and organizations to support solar energy even if they don’t have the property or financing to install photovoltaic panels on their own. Under the law, solar developers are required to sell subscriptions to their solar gardens to individuals, local governments and organizations, and Xcel Energy is required to purchase the electricity produced by the arrays and reimburse subscribers via discounted utility bills.