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5,000-acre solar farm proposed in northeast Lee County

DIXON – A 5,000-acre utility-grade solar farm is being proposed in northeast Lee County and would generate around $77.8 million in tax revenue for the area across 35 years.

Steward Creek Solar LLC, an offshoot of Virginia-based Hexagon Energy, is petitioning the county for a special-use permit to build the 600-megawatt solar farm across Alto and Willow Creek Townships near Steward and Lee.

The Lee County Zoning Board had its first meeting in the hearing process for the project with testimony from Hexagon owner and CEO Matt Hantzmon, who said the development would generate enough energy to power 116,300 homes a year.

The footprint borders Ogle and Dekalb counties as well as Interstate 39 and Highway 30.

If approved, the goal would be to begin construction in fall 2022 and become operational in 2024. The first year of property taxes is estimated to be about $3.5 million, with $2.3 million going to schools.

Hantzmon said that across the life of the project, about 35 years, it would generate $51.5 million for the Steward, Rochelle and Indian Creek school districts, as well as $8.7 million for the county, $6.3 million for community colleges, $4.4 million for fire districts, $4.2 million for road improvements, and $2.6 million for towns.

“The economic development implications of this project are significant and are part of the reason we think we’d be a good neighbor for this region,” he said.

It would create around 700 jobs for the two years of construction work and retain 15 to 20 full-time jobs across 35 years.

He also said they would be good stewards of the land, planting native grasses and increasing soil retention and nutrients before returning it to agricultural use.

The site has an average Crop Productivity Index of 128 as grade B farmland, of which 47% is farmed with corn, 37% soybeans and 16% fallow, pasture or hay, Hantzmon said.

Zoning Board members, county officials and interested community members were able to ask Hantzmon questions during his testimony, and a handful of area residents weren’t sold on the idea.

“The density of this project is extreme for what the area currently has,” Steward resident Mark Peterson said. “We’ve had 150 years of agricultural use, and now we’re going to in some cases have [parcels] 600 acres of panels.”

Peterson asked how the project would blend with the community.

Hantzmon said the area already has exposure with energy production with wind turbines, and they’re taking several steps to benefit the community and ease issues neighboring landowners would have, including additional work to mitigate drainage concerns, having setbacks of at least 300 feet from homes, and setting up not-for-profit organizations to benefit the Lee and Steward communities.

Each village would receive $25,000 a year with 2.5 percent annual increases, and the boards would be appointed by local leaders.

Lee County Zoning Administrator Dee Duffy asked Hantzmon to clarify that the energy produced wouldn’t necessarily power Lee County homes but would be sold to a large utility, which he confirmed.

The company has leases with 24 landowners spanning about 6,000 acres, and Ali Huss, of Lee, asked how many landowners lived within the footprint of the project, saying that most are tenant farmers. Hantzmon said only three landowners live within the project area, and there’s around 55 residences.

The hearing will continue at 7 p.m. Monday at the old Lee County Courthouse, and it will be available via Zoom and streamed on YouTube.

Hexagon’s proposal comes on the heels of the Lee County Board approving a 1,300-acre solar farm last month by Eldena Solar LLC, which is being developed by Minnesota-based Geronimo Energy.

Geronimo received a special-use permit for a 175-megawatt solar farm in South Dixon and Nachusa townships, near the corner of Eldena and Nachusa roads.

Neighbors to that project voiced concerns that there wasn’t enough due diligence with potential property value impacts and drainage, the solar ordinance needed revising, and that large solar projects would change the agricultural standing of the county.

Following a favorable recommendation from the Zoning Board, the County Board approved the Eldena project in a split vote of 14 in favor, four against, three abstaining and two absent.

Geronimo was also granted a special-use permit last year 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.

Another large project, which has yet to file a petition with the county, is a proposed 4,000-acre solar farm by Duke Energy Renewable Solar south of the industrial park on state Route 26 in South Dixon Township.

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