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(Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional details)
In addition to a countywide moratorium, a controversy over the removal of trees for a Minnesota solar project has prompted an amendment in the state legislature.
The amendment, offered by state Rep. Marion O’Neill, would prohibit solar projects if more than 75 percent of the trees in an area larger than three acres would have to be cut down. The bill to which her amendment was attached cleared the Minnesota House on April 27, though the Senate has yet to take it up.
The proposed legislation only applies to solar projects, and does not restrict other land-intensive uses, such as real estate development or mining. Rep. O’Neill did not return calls for comment on the distinction.
Local officials insist they’re not singling out solar for criticism, and that the unique circumstances of the project caught them off guard.
However, while county zoning officials met with both developers and state regulators about the project, it does not appear they submitted formal comments objecting to the tree clearing.
The controversy erupted in Wright County in early April, when Enel Green Power North America (EGP-NA) workers clear-cut some 11 acres of mature hardwood trees – an area roughly the size of 8 football fields – for the 80 acre solar array.
The location is part of a planned $250 million, 150-megawatt Aurora Solar Project, scattered over 21 sites in 16 Minnesota counties, that is expected to go online at year’s end. The project received approval from the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in May 2015.
The tree clearing took place near the town of Buffalo, an exurban community about 40 minutes from downtown Minneapolis, where farm fields and natural areas are interlaced with suburban housing and commercial projects.
Locals, no strangers to development, say they received no warning that the roughly 1,000 trees were coming down.
“They just came through and cut them all down – they’re gone,” said Buffalo Township clerk and treasurer Tom Kleist. “We questioned afterwards why they did that. We really haven’t gotten a good response.”
Local township officials say the PUC, as the statewide regulatory agency overseeing large power-generation facilities, is ignoring local authority.
Aurora’s individual installations will generate significantly less than 50 megawatts individually. While that normally would put them under local control, the Aurora project has been declared an “integrated system.” Therefore, its aggregate 150-megawatt output makes it a state responsibility, explained Tom Wolf, the PUC’s executive secretary.
“Those are projects that are deemed to have statewide significance and the permitting authority is at the state level,” he said.
The Wright County board of commissioners responded in mid-April by declaring a temporary moratorium on any additional solar fields in their jurisdiction.
‘The devil is in the details’
Sean Riley, Wright County’s zoning and planning administrator, said when a residential or commercial development gets built locally, county and municipal officials have direct oversight. When complaints arise about the developer’s methods or conduct, he said, local authorities step in.
“If you’ve got local control, you know who are you dealing with and you can review a project’s impacts locally,” Riley said. “We do our best, when we do planned-unit developments, to preserve natural features of the land.”
Similarly, he added, farmers wishing to convert woods to farmland must first apply for and receive conditional use permits.
“Now, does that come up very often?” Riley said. “No, because farmland conversion was done in Minnesota a long time ago for the most part.”
But because the state PUC is Aurora’s regulatory authority, locals could not halt – or even question – the tree razing, Riley said. “In this case, we did not have that opportunity because it was exempt as a state-level project.”
Wolf challenged assertions that local officials have had no say in Aurora’s development.
The PUC held a series of public sessions in early 2015 to gather input, he said. Further, it gave citizens numerous platforms – both digital and analog – for voicing their concerns in writing.
“We certainly are very cognizant of local feedback into any project, and we take that into consideration,” Wolf said.
Kleist admits it is true that the PUC collected input, but as far as he knows there is no way to know whether the commission took such concerns into account.
“The devil is in the details,” Planning and Zoning’s Riley added. “If there are complaints and problems, what do you do to follow up? I mean, what do you do if the trees are gone? Replant them? No. It happened.”
Riley said some of the downed trees stood on the back portion of the solar site, adjacent to wetlands and apparently out of harm’s way.
“I think people perceived the trees to be independent of the project,” he said. “So if they were, why did they come down?
However, Riley also said he “doesn’t recall” whether the county Planning and Zoning office submitted formal comments to the PUC objecting to the tree cutting.
“The only thing I can recall is the Aurora developers came specifically to the county board wanting a letter of endorsement and at that time the county specifically declined. They didn’t say they were against it. They just declined to intervene on a letter of support at that time.”
Other issues involved
Greg Kryzer, assistant Wright County attorney, says the county’s emergency moratorium is in effect until a May 10 public hearing. On that day, county board members will discuss whether to extend it. In any case, Kryzer said, the moratorium can last no longer than one year – time enough for county staff to study the issue.
The clear-cutting controversy was only one issue that concerned board members, according to Kryzer. He said the county’s Planning Commission has been deluged with solar generation applications, and board members worried that some could violate the county’s land-use plan, which restricts industrial development in agriculture zones.
“I think the board just wanted to take a pause and look at the issue a little further over the next year,” Kryzer said.
Rep. O’Neill offered her amendment to the House omnibus agriculture, environment and natural resources bill after she attended an emergency meeting with Buffalo township officials in mid-April.
Wolf says both the moratorium and the legislation could impact future solar projects. However, neither will affect Aurora.
The O’Neill amendment, Wolf said, would only affect new projects falling under state regulatory authority. That would exempt Aurora, which already has its permits. The county’s moratorium, meanwhile, would exclude Aurora because it is larger than 50 megawatts – the output level at which the state asserts regulatory authority, Wolf said.
EGP-NA on May 4 issued a written statement noting that the county moratorium would do nothing to halt its plans. The statement did not address the House bill.
“As a utility scale and state-permitted project, Aurora’s Lake Pulaski site in Wright County will not be impacted by the county’s emergency moratorium on solar projects,” the statement reads.
“EGP-NA aims to build longstanding relationships with the community, promoting open dialogue and transparency throughout the life of a project,” the statement continues. “As construction on the site begins, we will continue working closely with Wright County representatives to ensure the project complies with all permitting regulations.”
Kleist and Riley both assert that Buffalo Township is not generally opposed to solar development. However, they think there must be a better way to build installations without taking prime farmland out of production and clear-cutting trees.
“I think all of us have said that if you want to do solar, go right ahead and do it,” Kleist said. “Let’s just do it so it makes sense.”