Residents voice concerns about proposed solar farm

May 8, 2019

DIXON – Property owners near the proposed 760-acre solar farm in Steward voiced several concerns about the project Monday.

Junction Solar LLC is petitioning the county for a special-use permit to build a 100-megawatt solar farm between Herman and Reynolds roads in Alto and Reynolds townships on about 760 acres of farmland owned by Larry and Julie Gittleson and Midwest Ag Investors LLC.

The Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals heard its second round of testimony, and one of the neighboring landowners’ primary concerns was possible contamination to the water table.

Adjacent resident Robert Johnson said the high water table sits about 3 to 10 feet underground, and driving thousands of piles up to 12 feet below ground to mount the solar panels could create problems in the future.

Peggy Podlasek, who owns and leases out farmland next to the project footprint, and her husband Bob, a professor of mechanical engineering at Bradley University with an energy background, also were worried about the water table and said it doesn’t make sense to take prime farmland out of production.

“This is the best land we have around, and it relies on the flow of water beneath the land,” Bob Podlasek said.

It would also be “visual pollution” to the area, they said.

Johnson was also concerned about hearing clicking sounds from the panels as they shift to absorb the most sunlight, and that the company behind Junction Solar, Minnesota-based Geronimo Energy, is being bought out.

In March, British gas and electricity giant National Grid announced plans to buy renewable energy developer Geronimo for $100 million and is also looking to acquire a 51-percent share of 378 megawatts of the company’s wind and solar developments for $125 million.

Geronimo also owns the Green River Wind Farm that spans more than 13,000 acres in Lee and Whiteside counties.

Rosie Thome, who owns neighboring property, said she was worried that the project would mean having to shut down her private runway, that it would cause damage to the gravel roads, and that bringing in sheep to mow the grass would be a disaster.

If the company committed to the sheep idea, she said bacteria from the manure traveling in the air could be a health hazard and they could also attract more coyotes in the area.

Last week, Geronimo construction manager Chip LaCasse said they have yet to use sheep to mow, and it would be a low probability of it being done with this project.

In closing statements, Courtney Kennedy, a Dixon attorney representing the solar farm, argued that the company’s special use application meets all the requirements stated in the county’s solar ordinance, and the land will still be in production, just not crop production.

The project would also promote more pollinators in the area and help with water runoff in addition to being compatible with the surrounding area, she said.

If approved, the project would take about a year to build and is estimated to bring in $588,000 in property taxes for the first year of the project, and a total of $8.8 million across 20 years.

“I know they’re dangling some money in front of you, but it’s a deal with the devil,” Bob Podlasek said.

The Zoning Board will next meet about the project Friday, and the group’s recommendation will go to the County Board for a final vote.