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City needlessly moves on opposition to solar farm

January 4, 2019

ROCK FALLS – The City Council gave the go-ahead Wednesday to send a letter to the county, objecting to a special-use permit petition for a solar farm, but as it turns out, there was nothing to object to.

The request was filed by Sunrise Energy Ventures, a Minnesota-based solar development company. The permit was needed to build the community solar farm at 25856 W. Rock Falls Road/U.S. Route 30, in an area zoned for agriculture.

Although the project was in the county’s jurisdiction, the city was given a say in the matter because it was within a 1.5-mile radius of its borders.

After discussing the zoning request at a Dec. 13 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, the panel recommended that the city draw up a letter of objection, based largely on spot zoning concerns.

Spot zoning, by definition, is giving a small piece of land a different zoning classification than the larger surrounding area for the benefit of the petitioner and to the detriment of the surrounding landowners.

Many municipalities have found themselves in costly court battles over spot zoning challenges.

The key to identifying spot zoning lies in the comprehensive plans of a city or county, which was prominently featured in the city’s letter.

“According to the county’s adopted comprehensive plan, existing uses, including farming and rural uses, should continue in those areas until more urban development is market-feasible. Therefore, the property should remain used for farming and rural purposes to maintain its compatibility with the surrounding properties,” the letter said.

The matter was moved to the City Council, which unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the letter to be sent to the county. The city continued to pay attorneys to work on the final version before officials discovered Thursday that, not only is the company no longer is interested in the site, but also that it withdrew its request Dec. 20. Neither the county or the company notified Rock Falls.

Building Inspector Mark Searing was the city’s point person on the matter.

“Nobody notified me about it – the last time I heard from the company was when they told me they couldn’t make the Dec. 13 [planning and zoning] meeting,” Searing said.

Suzan Stickle, the county’s building and zoning administrator, said her office did not contact the city about the withdrawal, and she knows of no other sites the company might be considering.

City officials said they have nothing against alternative energy projects; the objection was based solely on spot zoning concerns.

“We’re 100 percent for solar, and this is a very green town with a hydroelectric plant,” City Administrator Robbin Blackert said. “Our only objection was that it didn’t meet the criteria of the county’s comprehensive plan.”

Had the petition not been withdrawn, the county could have amended the plan to allow for putting a solar farm in the agricultural area.

The city’s letter of objection would have forced the County Board to pass the special-use request by a three-fourths majority vote rather than a simple majority.

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