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Community solar gardens rise in popularity, except with some neighbors

There are 48,600 solar panels at the Paynesville Auoroa Solar project site that started generating 10 MWdc of solar power this month. The power generated here is purchased by Xcel Energy. (Carolyn Lange / Forum News Service)1 / 5
Ground-mounted solar panels tend to stand about nine feet tall, and many companies agree to add berms or tree cover so that neighbors cannot see the panels from their homes. Submitted photo 2 / 5
There are 19,200 solar panels at the Atwater solar farm, producing 4 MWdc of solar power. (Carolyn Lange / Forum News Service)3 / 5
Acreage-wise, the 108-acre solar farm near Paynesville is the largest of the Aurora Solar project's 16 sites in Minnesota. The site began generating 10 MWdc of solar power this month, making it one of the top three highest-producing sites of the 16 sites in the Aurora Project. (Carolyn Lange / Forum News Service)4 / 5
Ground-mounted solar panels tend to stand about nine feet tall, and many companies agree to add berms or tree cover so that neighbors cannot see the panels from their homes. Submitted photo5 / 5

As popularity of community solar gardens in Minnesota rises, some who live next to the installations remain vocal with opposition to their construction.

Many, including Kevin and Kay Moquist in Woodbury, fear their property values will be lowered from bordering a community solar garden for its 25-year lifespan and worry that it will take away from the atmosphere they bought their homes in.

"It's disruptive to our rural neighborhood," Kevin Moquist said.

PREVIOUSLY: Solar garden gets Woodbury council OK with conditionCommunity solar garden planned on Aggregate land in Grey Cloud Island Township

Residents living near planned solar gardens often oppose them, saying that community solar gardens are unattractive, ruin the view from their homes, lower their property value, violate zoning by putting what many consider an industrial project in a rural area, create a nuisance glare off the panels, generators will be noisy, or that hazardous materials will come off of the panels.

"I don't want to look at it for 10 years," Kay Moquist said. "It's really unattractive."

Even solar supporters don't want to see it from their back window.

"I am really a fan of solar," Cottage Grove resident Dave Heggan said at a solar garden public hearing last summer. "I don't think it belongs in this particular site."

Others see solar gardens as the better land use to other possible alternatives.

"Compare this to a housing development ... this is less visible than a development, less traffic than a housing development and less noise," Louise Hines of Woodbury said at a public hearing Aug. 30. "I see it as having less of an impact than most of the developments in Woodbury, and I strongly support the use of solar in general."

A handful of residents, even some bordering the garden, support solar garden projects in their communities.

"It's a great improvement over blacktop and more brick and mortar being constructed," Woodbury resident Chuck Robb said.

The proposed Grey Cloud Island solar garden will be nearly invisible from the road, but near a couple residents. A few have aesthetic concerns, but most have been largely silent on the project.

Solar gardens in Empire Township near Farmington and in Rosemount are largely free of neighboring residents.

Solar selection

Local governments — including Woodbury City Council and Grey Cloud Island Town Board most recently — work with developers to make changes or add conditions to the project to mitigate resident concerns, often by putting berms, trees or greenery around the perimeter of the solar garden.

For some city council members — and numerous residents — the mitigation isn't always enough to make them comfortable with a proposal. Woodbury City Council member Christopher Burns and Cottage Grove City Council member Dave Thiede each voted against a community solar garden in his respective city, though both plans still passed 4-1.

Cottage Grove and Grey Cloud Island Township created solar garden overlay districts to reduce ambiguity about exactly where solar gardens can be placed in their communities.

Since passing its ordinance in 2015, Cottage Grove has had six applications; four have been approved and one is on its way to the city council.

The city created new regulations in its solar collection ordinance, after a year-long moratorium allowed city officials to work on a new plan. All solar gardens must be 300 feet from all property lines, a change from 100 feet in the previous ordinance.

Other communities, such as Woodbury and Farmington, allow applications not necessarily in a district, but through an interim conditional use permit when proposed in an appropriate area.

Rosemount has an 80-acre area slowly building out with solar gardens one at a time, starting installation last year, and recently installing another. The community solar gardens are currently operational.

Still others — including St. Paul Park and Newport — are staying out of the solar garden game altogether.

Werner Electric in Cottage Grove is pairing with Solar One to propose a new kind of solar project for the area: a rooftop community solar garden.

Werner Electric plans to build a 0.75 MW rooftop on the solar garden. The planning commission recommended the city council pass the proposal.

No one spoke for or against the garden at the planning commission public hearing.

More where it came from

Minnesota currently holds the mantel for 12th place in the solar races, with the 12th largest state solar market.

Minnesota passed legislation in 2013 requiring Xcel Energy to offer their solar program, and community solar gardens have exploded since then.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce recorded 209 MW of energy were produced from solar panels last year, and project about 600 MW for this year. In 2013, there were were only 5.1 megawatts of energy produced in the state.

The trend has been multiplying across the region as more cities establish ordinances to manage solar garden applications.

Xcel set up a subscriber-based system where residents of the county or county adjacent to the solar garden subscribe and get credits to their energy bill.

Spokesman Matt Lindstrom with Xcel Energy said there are many active projects, but they are also expecting "a lot more coming down the pike for 2017," as more and more solar gardens come online.

As of June, there were 100 active applications in Dakota County, including those that are in review, in the design phases and completed gardens. There were 72 in Washington County.

Cottage Grove has four upcoming solar gardens, and Grey Cloud is in the process of approving one.

An Ecoplexus solar garden has started grading off 70th Street in Old Cottage Grove, and has submitted a building permit. The CGSolar project directly next to the first garden has also pulled a building permit.

No permits have been received for solar project at 10990 Manning Avenue.

A solar garden on the southwest edge of Woodbury was approved Aug. 30.

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