Solar farm gets green light from county

DIXON – The County Board gave a shine of approval Tuesday for the proposed 100 megawatt solar farm in Steward, which would be one of the largest developments in the Midwest.

The board signed off on a special use permit for Junction Solar LLC to build the solar farm between Herman and Reynolds roads in Alto and Reynolds townships on about 760 acres of farmland owned by Larry and Julie Gittleson and Midwest Ag Investors LLC.

The board made the approval without discussion, and two adjacent landowners spoke against the project during the public comment period, which came after the vote.

Bob Podlasek, a professor of mechanical engineering at Bradley University whose wife Peggy owns and leases out farmland next to the project footprint, said he had three major concerns with the project – that it would disrupt the flow of underground water and worsen drainage, that it sets a dangerous precedent to put such a development on prime farmland, and that the company is being bought out.

Junction Solar’s parent company is Minnesota-based Geronimo Energy, which owns the Green River Wind Farm that spans more than 13,000 acres in Lee and Whiteside counties.

In March, British gas and electricity giant National Grid announced plans to buy renewable energy developer Geronimo for $100 million and is also looking to acquire a 51-percent share of 378 megawatts of the company’s wind and solar developments for $125 million.

Junction Solar is a $121 million project estimated to generate around $588,000 in county property taxes for the first year and total about $8.8 million across 20 years.

The solar arrays would be staked about 12 to 15 feet into the ground, and construction will take 6 months to a year to complete. The company estimates spending about $14 million in the state and creating around 120 construction jobs and five to eight full-time jobs.

The Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals gave the project a favorable recommendation earlier this month after hearing testimony from project officials and concerned neighbors across three meetings.

Some of the board’s findings included that the panels would have an anti-reflective coating, pollinator-friendly grass would be planted, existing drainage tile would be maintained or replaced if damaged, and the development must comply with the county’s solar ordinance as well as state and federal laws.