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Lee County Zoning Board gives favorable recommendation for 1,300-acre solar farm

DIXON – The Lee County Zoning Board recently approved a favorable recommendation for the proposed 1,300-acre solar development near Eldena following several meetings during the last month.

Eldena Solar LLC, which is being developed by Minnesota-based Geronimo Energy LLC, is petitioning the county for a special-use permit that would allow for a 175-megawatt solar farm in South Dixon and Nachusa townships, near the corner of Eldena and Nachusa roads.

The Zoning Board unanimously approved a favorable recommendation for the project, which will be sent to the Lee County Board for a final vote Sept. 17.

The vote came after making more than 60 findings of facts based on testimony, evidence and public comment during the hearing process that included topics such as lighting, noise, glare, and agricultural and environmental impact.

One of the findings was that the company did not present sufficient evidence that the development wouldn't have negative effects on neighboring property values because examples used were from properties around much smaller solar farms.

Last month, Andrew Lines of Chicago-based CohnReznick, a valuation advisory services group, testified that the project wouldn't likely have a negative impact on home values based on a market analysis of real estate adjacent to solar farms that had been sold, comparing properties near several developments including the 20-megawatt Grand Ridge Solar built in 2013 in Streator and a 100-megawatt North Star Solar built in 2014 in Minnesota.

Zoning Board members Glen Hughes and Craig Buhrow argued that the examples were from substantially smaller solar farms.

"While I don't believe there's going to be a negative impact, I'm not fully convinced based on the size of this project," Hughes said.

The company is seeking setback variances for three parcels from 300 feet to 15 feet, but the board recommended that setbacks be at least 50 feet. The 300-foot setback applies because the property was previously platted for a subdivision about 50 years ago, but no development took place.

The board also found that though the variances would not be a substantial detriment to the public good, they are not "in harmony with the Lee County zoning ordinance's general purpose and intent."

At a previous meeting, 11 community members neighboring the project footprint spoke out against the project with concerns with drainage as well as not having enough time to prepare adequate opposition testimony and the precedent it could set for other utility grade solar projects.

The company has worked with landowners to make some changes because of concerns, including having a 7-foot-tall woven wire fence instead of a chain-link fence, as well as planting trees and decorative bushes around it.

The $180 million project is estimated to generate around $15.5 million in property taxes across 20 years, with the bulk going to the Amboy School District, about $730,000 a year. Additional county revenue would be around $113,000 a year.

It would generate energy to power about 30,000 homes per year.

Last year, Geronimo received a special-use permit under Junction Solar LLC to build a 100-megawatt solar farm on about 760 acres of farmland in Alto and Reynolds townships in Lee County.

The company also owns the 194-megawatt Green River Wind Farm in Lee and Whiteside counties north of Walnut, which became operational late last year with 74 turbines across 13,000 acres.

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