Solar-farm research transforms critics on Piatt County Board into advocates

Solar-farm research transforms critics on Piatt County Board into advocates

MONTICELLO — Piatt County board representatives Renee Fruendt and Bob Murrell went from solar farm critics in December to wholeheartedly endorsing the renewable-energy option for agriculturally zoned land a month later.

The main reason for the turnaround?

"Research," Fruendt said after a county board session this week that saw the unanimous approval for three solar-farm permits, all of which had been voted down by the board at some point in 2018.

Fruendt's objection last month was centered around the issue of farmland use, particularly of using valuable agriculture-zoned land for something other than growing crops.

Since that time, she went to the horse's mouth for an opinion on the impact of solar farms on farmland.

"I talked to farmers and got their take on it," Fruendt said. "They were saying that even 20 to 25 years, when it goes back into production, it might make it even better."

Approved by 6-0 votes were special use permits for:

— Farmer City USS Solar to place 3.2 megawatts of solar arrays on 30 acres near Farmer City.

— 329 Frontier Piatt for a 4 Mw project on 47 acres southwest of DeLand.

— Madden Creek Solar, a 4 Mw solar farm pegged for 37 acres on the Piatt/Champaign County line.

'It harvests the sun'

329 Frontier Piatt had applied for a second time after being turned down by the board in November. The other two appealed their denials, which brought them back to the county board for another hearing.

In responding to land use concerns, Madden Creek Solar spokesman Amber Miller of Geronimo Energy felt solar panels were very appropriate on land currently used for farming.

"It's another type of agricultural use. It harvests the sun," Miller said.

Murrell had also opposed solar farms as recently as the Dec. 12 board session, citing the county comprehensive land use plan adopted in 1970 and updated in 2010. While the document places a high value on farmland, he said a third reading of the 316-page document showed him that commercial diversification of agriculture-zoned land was also expected.

"They wanted to keep agricultural land agricultural, but at their own projections, they anticipated an almost 21 percent increase in commercial use of A-1 farmland. We're nowhere near increasing it by 21 percent since they did this," Murrell said, referring to the comprehensive plan.

Also reversing his vote this week was board member Randy Shumard, mostly due to there being a sunset condition that requires permits to expire in two years if construction is not underway.

'Better' proposals now

Piatt County Board Chairman Ray Spencer said the turnaround of the board's opinion may not have been as abrupt as it appeared, saying knowledge has been absorbed since the first solar permit application came to the county last June.

He has also been meeting one on one with board members to make sure they were up to speed on solar proposals that have multiplied with the state's commitment to renewable energy as a part of last year's Future Energy Jobs Act.

"It's education of the board, evolution of the projects, and things just kind of coming together at the right time," Spencer said.

And although the process of tabling and re-hearing testimony lengthened the process, the county board chairman thought it made the projects better.

"Every time, the companies' proposals got modified, changed, refined and got better all the time," he said.

For example, 329 Frontier Piatt moved its proposal to the west, taking it further from a homeowner who had objected to the project. Madden Creek also moved its proposal to take solar arrays further away from eight nearby houses.

The next battle for the projects is state energy credits, which will be in short supply but are needed by the local proposals in order to break ground. Operated by the Illinois Power Agency, the first window for applicants to apply for the adjustable block grant program opens on Jan. 30. That date was recently moved back from Jan. 15.

Steve Hoffman is editor of the Piatt County Journal-Republican, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit journal-republican.com.

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