The lawyer representing a solar development firm with state law on its side says the company is “evaluating all its options” after the Sangamon County Board, by a one-vote margin, turned down its proposed solar farm near a rural subdivision east of Springfield.
Trajectory Energy Partners hasn’t yet decided whether to sue the county, apply again for conditional-use zoning or abandon the project, according to Seth Uphoff, a Peoria lawyer representing the Illinois-based company.
Trajectory wants to establish the 5-megawatt, $10 million River Maple Solar II project on 35 acres east of Westview Park Subdivision, five miles east of Springfield and five miles north of Rochester.
The Republican-controlled board, in front of an overflow crowd of 70 or more people on May 9, turned down the $10 million proposal on a bipartisan vote. Fourteen members voted against River Maple Solar II, 13 voted in favor, and one voted present.
County Board Chairperson Andy Van Meter didn’t vote because board rules call for him to vote only to break ties.
The board did approve two other solar-farm zoning proposals during the meeting – Stetson Solar LLC’s project in the 2500 to 2600 block of Illinois Route 104 in the Pawnee area on a vote of 21 to 7; and Trajectory’s River Maple Solar III project in the 1700 to 2000 block of Jostes Road a half-mile from Westview Park, on a vote of 16 to 12.
No members of the public showed up to object to the Stetson project, but several nearby homeowners objected to River Maple Solar III.
Westview Park homeowners said at the board meeting and in interviews with Illinois Times that they fear the acres of black solar panels will disturb the peaceful rural environment they enjoy, reduce the value of their property and pose as-yet-unknown health risks during the 35-year life of the solar farm.
They also were skeptical of any future savings on their electric bills if they participated in a “community solar project” connected with the solar farm.
“The bottom line is this is all about proximity,” Steve Jones, 68, whose backyard would be 1,200 feet from the project, told the board. He said he helped collect 93 signatures from residents of his subdivision and an adjacent subdivision opposing the solar farm.
“This is not against alternative energy, union jobs or even tax revenue,” he said. “Move it a mile and a half southeast to the closed gravel pits, and all opposition goes away immediately.”
But Trajectory founder and managing partner Jon Carson told the board that the 6-year-old company is developing two dozen other solar farms in Illinois that are closer to homes than River Maple Solar II.
He and other company officials said the solar panels aren’t noisy, pose “almost zero risk” to public health, employ union trades workers to install, help the state transition away from climate-altering fossil fuels and take relatively little farmland out of production.
“You see these projects integrated into neighborhoods across the state,” Carson said.
The company has said each of its 5-megawatt projects would generate 15 times more property taxes each year than the current $1,900 paid annually. More than $19,000 of the new $28,450 total for each project would go to the Rochester School District, Uphoff said.
Both sides referred to conflicting studies on the impact of solar farms on property values.
Van Meter, a Springfield Republican representing District 24, said he was surprised the board turned down River Maple Solar II.
The developer tailored its project to meet county zoning requirements that were stricter than state requirements even though the company didn’t have to do that, he said.
Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and the Democratic-controlled enacted Public Act 102-1123 in January to take away most zoning authority at the county level and prevent counties from continuing to block many solar- and wind-energy projects.
As a result, Van Meter said Trajectory could end up winning approval for River Maple Solar III without as many protections for adjacent landowners as the company offered before the May 9 vote.
Van Meter said he disagreed with the intent of the new law. He said it’s “folly” to believe that lawmakers and other policy-makers at the state level know better than county officials what’s best for downstate residents in places such as Galesburg or Auburn.
“This is an enormous, diverse state,” Van Meter said.
Comments from many board members before the vote indicated they objected to the legislature and governor taking away local authority.
“You stand up for your constituents,” board member David Mendenhall, a Republican representing the area including and near River Maple Solar II, told Illinois Times. “Let the company sue us.”
Before a resolution authorizing the project was voted down, Trajectory officials said they wouldn’t oppose an amendment to the resolution requiring the company to install a $40,000 strip of vegetation along the entire western edge of the project as a visual buffer between it and the subdivision.
The amendment was proposed by Sam Cahnman, a Springfield Democrat representing District 18, who voted for the project. The County Board adopted that amendment, as well as another one calling for Trajectory to provide training and specialized equipment for emergency responders to deal with any issues at the solar farm. Neither amendment will take effect, however, because the overall resolution was defeated.
There are no solar farms operating yet in Sangamon County, though the Double Black Diamond Solar project is underway in Sangamon and Morgan counties.
Jones was glad the County Board turned down the Trajectory project but said, “I think it’s a temporary win.” He said he hopes the controversy surrounding the project leads to legal challenges of the new law or action by the General Assembly to change it.
Mendenhall, a retired farmer who lives in rural Buffalo, said the board’s vote on the project will send a message to elected officials at the state level, “but I don’t think they will read the message.”