3/30/2018 3:11:00 PM Franconia Township tables vote on
halting solar permits, zoning takeover
It was Friday night and things were hopping at Franconia Township Hall.
Normally swearing-in a newly elected supervisor and township clerk doesn’t attract standing room only crowds. In Franconia, though, this step was taking place so township government could get down to business. It was not the ceremony of taking office that called to the meeting attendees, it was another item that attracted about three dozen concerned citizens.
Franconia Township Board has been asked by a group of residents to adopt a solar array permit moratorium, halting installations for 12 months.
The township also is treading towards accepting responsibility for township land use zoning and administration.
The solar arrays are the only land use the township is proposing to freeze. Town Board Chair Dennis Gustafson made clear that houses and structures, etc. permits will continue to be processed.
The moratorium or “interim ordinance” and taking over zoning are two highly impactful decisions and everyone wanted a say.
Chair Gustafson said the township didn’t present a preliminary 2019 budget at the annual meeting March 13, because expenses will be greatly affected if it is decided to takeover land use administration.
Chisago County now provides writing the rules, developing permits and fees, holding public hearings, doing permit review and enforcing code. Based on experiences in Lent Township, Franconia would need fulltime staff or have to hire a firm that provides these services, or a combination of these.
Gustafson let the audience have its say. But he declared early in the meeting that he would like to get a “broader better” representation of opinions on the township doing its own land use administration.
His opinion was that a Board vote that Friday night would be premature. “To dive into something right now, I’m just not willing to do that.”
Tom Rongitsch, resident, said there’s so much unknown about solar arrays and impacts on local wildlife and peoples’ health, he felt that a permit halt is supportable. He said the Sierra Club is suing to stop array installations elsewhere, based on permitting entities not doing “due diligence.”
We made contact with a Sierra Club media spokesperson and are waiting to hear if any lawsuits are specifically attempting to halt ground-mounted panels. Verne Greene agreed that protecting the township should be the supervisors’ main task. But adopting a moratorium could hurt the people. It will place the township in a costly legal battle, he said. As for taking over township zoning, “You’re going down the wrong road here” he concluded.
Ted Greene said the decision on taking over land use administration should be put to a referendum.
He also noted that the meeting agenda didn’t announce taking over administration of land use would be before the Board, and it shouldn’t even be a discussion item. The printed agenda only mentioned consideration of the solar (and wind) permits moratorium.
Township resident Paul Dennison disputed that the township could even enact a moratorium or interim ordinance. The township has no “urban powers agreement” as a basis for land regulation. It can’t halt a permit process that is now allowed in code; by enacting an ordinance that it doesn’t have the power to enact, he offered. And, besides, Franconia taxpayers are already paying the county Environmental Services department to administer land use.
Put April 10 on calendar Township Resident Angel Permaloff suggested the town board table a vote and call for a public hearing and put out notice, for a hearing April 10, which is the next regularly scheduled meeting date.
Permaloff and several other township citizens have been working with Chisago County Environmental Services for months on revising the existing solar array permit ordinance.
One company, Community Energy Solar, has re-designed a Franconia Twsp. array site it’s in the process of permitting--in direct response to concerns aired. Company representative Rick Ahern identified himself in the audience at Franconia Town Hall. A couple residents commended his company for meeting with neighbors and increasing array setbacks, while agreeing to plant preferred screening vegetation.
A semi-final version of a re-written county solar array ordinance should be presented to the county planning commission when it meets April 5. Permaloff said there will be a better feel for the county’s approach once it’s been reviewed by the planning commission April 5 and the township may be able to act April 10. The April 10 meeting will start at 6:30 p.m. so the supervisors can get regular business done first.
Some in the audience--who did not state their names-- argued the county can’t be trusted to do what’s best for Franconia. They wanted the township to impose the moratorium and pursue independent zoning authority as one package. They said it is not “permanent” and it’s just a “pause” to allow more investigation of arrays. The meeting attendees particularly opposed “administrative permit” authority allowed in the county ordinance (staff okays small arrays).
Chairman Gustafson commented he has never heard justification for administrative permits as a tool. But, the town board chair also said he could talk with planning and zoning and get up-to-date information on array permit applications and felt Franconia can work with the county.
The chair was asked if he knew about a solar array moving forward on the Wallraff parcel at Olinda and Panola? He said he had no knowledge of this.
Audience members responded this was proof the county has “hidden” these projects, and this is just another example of lack of transparency.
** In checking Monday this week with county Environmental Services staff; the Press was told this solar array was granted an administrative permit in 2017. It is proposed at 5.5 acres. It is shown on a solar array projects map the county produced. The project has not been issued a construction permit yet.
There were also statements made by members of the audience that sub-stations in Franconia have achieved maximum capacity. Without significant upgrades to the electrical distribution system, it is unlikely more commercial arrays will even be able to connect with the grid.
The Press is working to attribute this information to a reliable source.