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Lee County sets the field for solar development

DIXON – There’s a solar farm company wanting to develop 200 acres in Lee County, and local officials are making sure they’re ready when the sun comes out.

The County Board recently approved its first ordinance regulating solar farm development and outlining expectations for the construction, installation, operation and decommission of solar energy systems.

“Anytime the county can hope for revenue, we’ve got to do it,” Board Chairman Jim Wentling said. “We have to be ready for the companies that come here.”

Solar companies’ interest in the Sauk Valley is not new, but they’re making their rounds throughout the area trying to line up projects and pursue solar renewable energy credits from the Illinois Power Agency come summer.

Earlier this month, the Bureau County Board approved special use permits for a $31 million solar farm to be built in the northwestern part of the county, near New Bedford.

In Dixon, California-based Cenergy Power wants to build two 10-acre solar farms at the airport and enter into a 21-year lease for the land, paying the city $2,000 per acre each year.

Last week, the Sauk Valley Community College Board of Trustees discussed going after the renewable energy credit and building solar panels on top of the college.

Whiteside County approved an ordinance on solar farms in April.

Interest in solar energy development is being generated throughout the state, and having an ordinance in place is like having the infrastructure built out for attracting a new business, County Assessor Wendy Ryerson said.

“We need some economic development, and this is one way to do it,” she said.

Similar to the county’s rules on wind farms, solar developers need to have special use and building permits from the county before going forward with a project.

That includes submitting a detailed site plan that follows restrictions on lighting, noise, glare, fencing, weed and grass control, drainage and other topics.

Wentling said it’s too early to say where the potential development area is, but it’s in Lee County and will likely be within 2 miles of a substation, which is common for solar farms.

More than a year ago, a few companies were interested in building solar farms across about 400 to 500 acres along the Interstate 39 corridor, but the board didn’t think a solar farm would be able to pass the Land Evaluation Site Assessment, or LESA, that protects the prime farmland in that area.

Lee County State’s Attorney Matt Klahn said the LESA doesn’t automatically disqualify a solar farm because it’s not incompatible with agriculture.

According to the ordinance:

“The Lee County Board must not follow the LESA system blindly, but rather, must base its zoning and rezoning decisions on the totality of circumstances that arise in each case.”

Ryerson, who played a significant role in determining how wind farms are assessed throughout Illinois, is part of a committee working on creating a statewide standard for assessing solar farms and said legislation will likely be introduced in January.

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