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Linn County may use outside consultants for possible solar farm permit review

Updated: May. 10, 2021 at 7:55 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - The increase in building permit applications across Linn County is increasing the likelihood the county will need to use a third-party consultant to review permits for potential solar panel array farms.

Charlie Nichols, who is the director for Planning and Development in Linn County, said that could cost around $25,000. However, also said there was no way to know the exact cost yet because, as of Monday, there is no bid process underway.

Nichols said his office has seen a 411% increase in building permits given out during 2021 compared to 2020. He said the increase is coming from people who are still rebuilding their homes after the derecho.

“That means all of our staff are much busier than they normally would be,” Nichols said. “Our clerical staff are taking in more permits than they normally would, our building inspectors are going on more inspections than what they’re used to. It just means more work all around.”

Nichiols said COVID-19 protocols, like getting rid of paper permits, are helping to approve applications faster. But, larger development projects are likely to create delays in approving other building permits. Those larger projects include two different solar array farm projects.

Both Clenera and NextEra Energy are trying to create solar farms in the county. Clenera, which is based in Boise, Idaho, is planning to build a solar farm in Coggon. It just opened a 750-acre solar farm in Wapello, which is the largest in Iowa. The project in Coggon is expected to be of a similar footprint.

NextEra Energy, which is based in Florida and owns the decommissioned Duane Arnold Energy Center, is trying to expand the power plant into three different solar arrays around the Palo area. The company said the three solar farms would make up around 3,500 acres of land and hopes to complete all three solar farms by November 2023.

Nichols said there isn’t a difference if a third party or the county reviews the permit from these companies because people will still conduct inspections to make sure either company isn’t building something that wasn’t presented to the county. He said adding a consultant company would ensure there is no delay in approving other building permits.

”The third-party contractor would really take away a lot of those boots on the ground,” Nichols said. “And hours, that would take our staff time away from just doing everything else in the county.”

Concerns about the project

Nichols said neither company has submitted their plans for the exact location of the solar farm. He said once that happens it will take at least two months for either company to start building. The delay occurs because Linn county will have to rezone the land the projects would be built on.

To rezone the land, two of three county commissioners would have to approve the new zoning laws. In April, a number of people who live in the potential project area for NextEra’s solar farm told KCRG-TV9 they didn’t have enough information about the project and were scared they were going to lose their land.

TV9 also got several questions from homeowners in the area about a letter warning of possible eminent domain procedures. A NextEra Energy spokesperson told us that they are required to use that language from Iowa Utilities Board.

Bryan Garner, who is a spokesperson for NextEra, said in May the company doesn’t have the power of eminent domain and doesn’t plan to seek it out when building a solar farm around the now shut down nuclear plant in Palo. He said the company will only buy land from those who choose to sell.

We’ve gotten a lot of enthusiasm so far and these are private lease agreements with landowners,” Garner said. “In many cases, these lease agreements allow them to enhance their incomes so they can invest that money elsewhere in their farm, their family business.”

Nichols’ office plans to host in-person meetings about the permitting process and, then, another meeting after each developer submits plans to erase confusion.

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