Solar farms are back.

The Scandia City Council last week approved a new ordinance permitting the installation of commercial solar farms within city limits, provided they meet a host of new screening and setback conditions.

Seeking to mitigate the concerns raised after the city first allowed commercial solar farms four years ago, the city’s new ordinance requires “distribution scale” solar arrays to be fully screened from roadways during the growing season and at least 30 to 50 percent screened with evergreens during the winter months. The closest solar panel must also be set back at least 350 feet from the nearest residence, 500 feet from nearby arterial roads and 200 feet from any other road.

“It seems like people just don’t want to see them,” Scandia Planning Commission Chair Dan Squyres said at the April 16 council meeting. “We tried to balance the property owners’ rights … with the desire of other residents to not have to look at them.”

Further, fencing around the solar farm sites will have to be constructed of wooden posts and be made to be wildlife friendly. Each solar farm site will be limited to a single power pole, as opposed to the 15 poles that have appeared on some of the existing solar farms in Scandia.

“That was the biggest complaint, the ‘pole gardens,’” Squyres said.  

Squyres said the planning commission considered, but ultimately rejected, an overlay zone that would have limited the number of solar farms within a certain distance of each other.

Having a first-come, first-served caveat in the ordinance might have created “a race to development,” City Attorney Eric Sherburne said. “That sort of thing invites manipulation.”

The new solar farm ordinance comes after the city first allowed, then disallowed, them over the past few years.

The city’s first commercial solar farm, a $12.5 million 5-megawatt farm northwest of the Highway 97/Manning Trail intersection, was touted as a step in the right direction toward sustainability and brought the city glowing media coverage from the Twin Cities. 

By mid 2016, though, with only one solar farm operating and four more approved but yet to be installed, the number of concerns had grown. Numerous power poles, commercial-style fencing, and a lack of effective screening had left neighbors of each site upset. The city revamped its screening standards for the farms once, before ultimately repealing the solar ordinance entirely in September 2017.

In late 2018, representatives from U.S. Solar, and others, began asking city officials to reconsider allowing the farms. The city held a public hearing about a new ordinance in February and the planning commission followed suit last month.

Mayor Christine Maefsky noted that while there hadn’t been any public input provided about the new ordinance at either last week’s council meeting or the public hearing, reactions to the topic on the city’s Nextdoor social media site, among about 40 commenters, had been mixed. 

“I still have suspicions that there will be more surprises,” Maefsky said. “The technology changes quickly and not enough time has lapsed (since the existing farms were installed).”     

Administrator search

Scandia’s yet-to-be-hired city administrator will be getting a pay raise.

The council approved advertising a pay range of $85,000 to $104,000 for the city’s job posting, an increase over the $73,000 to $91,000 pay range the city advertised in 2015.

Both the city’s administrator recruitment firm, DDA Human Resources, and the firm that recently conducted a classification and compensation study for the city, Baker Tilly, had recommended increasing the administrator wages based on a comparison with other cities nearby.  

City Administrator Neil Soltis, who had been making around $84,000 annually, will retire in May.

Soltis noted that market value for people in such public roles have generally increased in the past few years. Soltis said his successor in his previous job, in Hudson, is now making $20,000 per year more than he had been. 

Other business:

• Utilizing a $5,000 grant from Washington County and a $500 anonymous donation, the council approved the purchase and installation of a bike rack, a fix-it station, a trail map holder and timed door locks for the city’s skating rink building. The grant and project were sought out by the Cycling Scandia group.

• The council approved the purchase and installation of new skateboard park ramps from American Ramp Company at a cost of $23,678.

• The council accepted a $38,270 Conservation Partners Legacy Grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for restoration work in Lilleskogen Park. The grant will allow the city to remove and treat invasive shrubs and grasses, and plant native seed mixes over a three-year period.

• The council approved the purchase and installation of microphones, speakers and related audio equipment from EMI Audio for $10,614. The equipment will be installed in the city council chambers to amplify the council dais and provide sound to the city’s meeting broadcasts. The equipment will be paid for by cable franchise and PEG fees.

The next Scandia City Council meeting will be held May 1 at 6:30 p.m.

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