Solar farm proposals stream in as McHenry County considers ordinance change

At least 10 proposals come in amid county officials’ debate

Solar farm developers want to come to McHenry County – the question is whether county officials will allow them.

At least 10 solar farm proposals have been submitted for approval, and two more are in the application process as the McHenry County Zoning Board of Appeals grapples with the standards it wants to set for such entities.

The question about how solar farms should be regulated comes on the heels of a controversial solar farm proposal by West Grant Development, Cypress Creek Renewables LLC and Shabadoo Solar, which want to develop a solar farm on a 90-acre plot of land in McHenry Township.

Neighbors largely have been against the proposal. They organized and hired a lawyer to represent them at meetings regarding the request.

A majority of the board voted against the proposal, 4-3, at its May 23 meeting, but the McHenry County Board will have final authority on the matter.

Despite the vote, no recommendation will go before the County Board because of a technicality in the board’s rules and procedures that requires a concurrence from five members in order to make a recommendation, according to the code.

County Board Chairman Jack Franks has said he doesn’t want to see the solar developments in residential areas but encourages renewable energy projects in appropriate McHenry County locations.

“I want to make sure McHenry County is competitive to get them,” he said. “We are crafting reasonable parameters while also making sure they are cited properly. ... I don’t want to shut it down. It’s an industry I am looking for.”

The zoning board recently heard a request from California-based Borrego Solar Systems Inc., which wants to develop a solar farm on a 29-acre parcel of land in Marengo Township on West Grant Highway, about 1,500 feet east of Burma Road, according to county documents.

Borrego would lease 16 acres from property owner Michael Grismer. Grismer said the farmland allows for poor production and the proposal would be a way for him to supplement income on the property.

Borrego plans to pay about $1,300 an acre annually to use the property, Grismer said. The lease is for a 20-year term with options to renew.

“It is going to create a steady income,” Grismer said. “I believe it would be considered low-impact.”

He also plans to work with Syncarpha Solar Project Fund LLC, which wants to put panels on a property he owns in Coral Township, according to county records.

Borrego intends to put a 7-foot-tall chain-link fence around the site. The development would be a 2-megawatt community solar farm, which means the energy collected will go back onto the ComEd grid and residents in the ComEd territory will have a chance to subscribe.

Subscribers can expect to save between 5 percent and 15 percent on their total energy bill, Borrego project development director Alex Farkes said. A 2-megawatt farm ultimately is expected to power between 250 and
300 homes, he said.

Borrego has requested several variances, including one on the length of a conditional use permit term. McHenry County’s standard is a 10-year permit, but Borrego has requested a 25-year permit.

Solar industry representatives have said these projects won’t be viable without longer permit terms.

They said it would be not only impossible to finance but also impossible to participate in the solar program without a long-term permit.

“A minimum of 25 years is vital for a project to come to fruition and be financeable,” Farkes said. “And these projects and parcels will continue to be there past the minimum. They will just need to be renewed.”

The useful life of a solar panel is about 40 years. Cypress Creek officials expressed similar sentiments at the zoning board hearing.

The board met this week to continue discussions about changing its ordinance, but members ultimately pushed the discussion to June 27.

Considerations include lengthening the permit term, requiring bonds for decommission plans and setting standards for things such as fencing, lighting, the planting of native plants and safety considerations.

The board will meet to vote on Borrego’s Marengo proposal at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the McHenry County Administration Building, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock.

Borrego has filed at least three other applications for solar farm permits with McHenry County to date, according to county records.

The three other developments are proposed for Richmond, Hartland and Chemung townships and must go before the zoning board at a future date.

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