Mills County Continues Development Of Solar Ordinance

Mills County officials are continuing the process of finalizing a solar ordinance for both personal and utility scale purposes.

Last week, the Mills County Board Of Supervisors approved an engagement letter with Omaha-based Baird Holm Law Office. David Levy, a resident attorney with the legal firm who specializes in zoning, land use, energy and municipal law, will assist the county while it continues to finalize the ordinance. He met with county supervisors during their regular meeting Tuesday, Nov. 1.

“He (Levy) is an expert in the field of renewable energy ordinances and planning,” Mills County Building and Zoning Department Administrator Holly Jackson said.
Development of a solar ordinance has been a lengthy process. Jackson noted at a September meeting of the Mills County Planning & Zoning Commission that she and other county officials have spoken to representatives from other counties in Iowa that have adopted solar ordinances.

“For the last eight months, planning and zoning has been working with my office and we have also consulted with various other jurisdictions that have also established solar commercial fields and ordinances in their zoning districts and jurisdictions,” she said.

“We’re trying to learn from them.”

A draft of the ordinance was presented at the September Planning & Zoning Commission meeting. Since then, some minor modifications have been made.

“We have modified it slightly,” Jackson said. “Our planning and zoning has had some questions. One of the points of contention right now is the height – minimum and maximum.”

Under the proposed ordinance, the minimum height required for a solar system would be 5 feet off the ground and the system could not exceed 15 feet at maximum tilt of the solar panels.

“The second layer of that would be the ground cover and what we would require for not only buffer, but ground cover,” Jackson said.

The ground cover issue was a topic of discussion during the Planning & Zoning Commission’s Nov. 1 meeting. Peter Berthelsen of Conservation Blueprint gave a presentation on ground covers and pollinators to commission members.

“He’s an expert in this field,” Jackson said. “This is one of those other points we could modify - looking at a vegetation management plan included in the ordinance. We have an agricultural vegetation plan, this would be more vegetation.

“One of the things that was brought to light is to be careful what we have in these ordinances. With the drought and burn bans we’ve had in place this year, we want to make sure we have something that would be less susceptible to fire, too. He’s worked with utility scale renewable energy projects in 23 states and can offer a little bit of insight.”

Mills County currently has a moratorium in place on solar projects until Dec. 13. The moratorium could be extended while language of the ordinance is finalized, Jackson said.

“I feel like we’ve got a good solid base of where we want it (ordinance) to be,” Jackson.

The legal services the county will receive from Baird Holm are projected to cost between $5,000 - $10,000.

“I think it’s great that the majority of work is done,” Levy said. “We’ll do as little or as much as you want.”

Levy said a good ordinance provides balance - protecting land owners who choose to have a solar systems on their property and the rights of neighboring property owners. He told the board of supervisors the ordinance will provide both “opportunity and challenges” for county officials, noting that solar projects can generate revenue for the county without the utilization of taxpayer-funded services.
Mills County’s solar ordinance will address several areas, including the permitting process, setbacks, height standards, groundcover standards, security fencing, landscaping buffer, maintenance, installation and design, soil erosion, storm water management, aviation protection, agricultural impact mitigation and decommissioning.

The ordinance continues to be a work in progress but Jackson is hopeful it can be finalized in time for implementation in early 2023.

MidAmerican Energy has confirmed it’s developing plans to build its first solar project on a site between Hastings and Emerson.

Geoff Greenwood, MidAmerican Energy Media Relations Manager, said the company has land under contract to purchase for a 50-megawatt, 300-acre project.

“We’re looking likely at 2024 or 2025 for the project,” he said. “We’re working with the county and we’ve obviously shared our plans with the county and we are looking forward to proceeding with this project.

 

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