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Will County ponders new rules for solar farms

by Susan DeMar Lafferty, The Daily Southtown, Tinley Park

As Will County officials update their zoning codes, one of the issues they are addressing is how to regulate solar farms.

In a special meeting of the county board’s Land Use and Development Committee, members pored over possible regulations for screening for safety and aesthetics, and decommissioning the site when it’s no longer used as a solar farm.

“This is something new for us,” said county board Speaker Jim Moustis, R-Frankfort Township. He suggested that they reach out to municipalities to establish uniform regulations on solar farms, noting that the village of Frankfort also is working on a similar ordinance.

The county currently has one applicant for a 45-acre solar farm by Cypress Creek Renewables in Crete Township and a few others pending, officials said.

With the state now offering incentives to develop solar power, solar companies are looking to lease local farmland for periods of about 20 years, officials said.

“This is setting the groundwork. We will look at each (applicant) on a case-by-case basis,” board member Laurie Summers, D-Crete, said. “I want this done right. I want to get as much mitigated as we can for neighbors, and let owners do what they want with their property.”

The county now requires a special use permit for solar projects — which adds an extra layer of scrutiny to applications, and that will continue.

But officials said they also want to ensure the project’s safety, protect the landowner and give developers an idea of what they want.

Decommissioning the site — restoring the land to its natural state once it is no longer being used for a solar farm — was a key issue.

The proposed ordinance defines that as physical removal of all solar photovoltaic installations, equipment and transmission lines, disposal and recycling of all waste and re-vegetation of the site as needed to minimize erosion.

According to Kirk Bishop, of Duncan Associates, the county’s consultant for the zoning code updates, the ordinance requires a decommissioning plan but allows the land owners and the solar farm operators to negotiate the terms and present it to the board.

“They must tell you how they will do it, and you can decide if the terms are adequate,” Bishop told the committee.

He suggested that the ordinance also may require that owners/operators provide evidence of financial ability to complete the project, and the board could require further financial guarantees if not satisfied.

The committee debated whether to require a bond, with some wanting to protect the landowner and others saying the owner should bear the financial responsibility.

“We should make sure the county is not responsible for this,” said board member Steve Balich, R-Orland Park.

Board member Ray Tuminello, R-New Lenox, said the county’s responsibility is to protect the residents, in the event that a solar developer backs out of a project, or an out-of-town company builds and leaves.

Doc Gregory, president of the Will and Grundy Counties Building Trades Council, urged the board to consider the use of local labor in building these farms.

He said he was involved in three solar farms, and building and decommissioning them is a “substantial” amount of work.

Gregory said he contacted one firm about work, but it not respond to his calls.

Additionally, he noted that some sites had 24-hour security guards during construction, and screening is necessary to “keep people out,” he said, because “if they see copper wire, they will take it.”

County officials acknowledged there is much to consider, and they may hold a Committee of the Whole meeting to allow Samantha Bluemer of the Land Use Department to explain solar farm operations.

As proposed, the ordinance would require the ground-mounted solar panels to be limited to 25 feet in height, set back at least 25 feet from all property lines and secured with a seven-foot fence and screened with a landscaped buffer or fence.

As part of the special use permit application, the owners/operators must submit a site plan, detailing the number and location of the solar panels, underground and overhead electric lines, and all property lines. The owner/operator also is responsible for immediate repairs of damage to the drainage system during construction and for keeping the facility in safe and well-maintained condition.

Another significant zoning change the committee proposed is the addition of “accessory dwelling units” (ADU) in residential areas. This includes converting space or building an addition to an existing home or garage, or constructing a detached unit on the same parcel.

These accessory units are designed to offer more affordable and accessible housing choices for varying income levels and changing lifestyles and provide for seniors, single parents and empty-nesters to remain in their homes and have companionship and assistance.

“By making provisions for accessory dwellings you are on the leading edge. This is a great thing. It strikes a balance,” Bishop told the committee.

The floor area of the ADU may not exceed 49 percent of the gross floor area of the principal dwelling unit on the lot, or 650 square feet, whichever is less.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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