SYCAMORE – In front of a standing room only crowd packed into the DeKalb County Board meeting Wednesday, three solar energy projects which have come under intense public scrutiny in recent months were given the go-ahead by the board to begin development on 6,000 acres of rural county land.
There will be a 3,700-acre project called Owens Creek and a 1,800-acre project called Red Maple, both by Texas-based Leeward Renewable Energy; and a 643-acre project from Samsung called DK Solar. The proposals are slated for development in the southern portion of the county.
The votes were 20-3, with some residents continuing to voice opposition to the size of the solar farms. According to development plans, the farms will have setbacks from residential spaces that exceed the minimum requirements under county code. DeKalb County Board member Larry West was absent.
DeKalb County Board Chairman John Frieders, who voted for the projects, said he’s not opposed to the board revisiting the county solar energy ordinance for future, larger-scale projects if needed.
“But the horse is out of the barn in this case,” Frieders said.
Owens Creek was approved with the caveat that the project must be at least 300 feet away from occupied structures or 100 feet from the structure’s property line – whichever distance is greater. Board members Tim Bagby, Kathy Lampkins and Tim Hughes voted against the amended ordinance. Red Maple and DK Solar also were approved, though board members Lampkins, Hughes and Jerry Osland voted against.
Debate has been significant over the past few months as the solar energy proposals went before the board and its zoning committee for public hearings several times. Opponents feared neighboring home values deteriorating amid large solar panels, financial liability for the county in the event of decommissioning, and the use of valuable farm land. Proponents argued the benefits of solar energy, given the global climate crisis, and property tax revenue to the area – not to mention field and planting rotation – made for a compelling case.
As part of the Leeward contracts, decommissioning a solar farm after its contract is up is the financial responsibility of the energy contractor, said Jamie Walter, of DeKalb, who’s family owns about 450 acres slated for Red Maple. Walter recently defended use of his private land for the development, touting the sustainable promise of the farms for agricultural land rejuvenation and energy production.
In a statement Wednesday, Leeward representative Kevin Thornton said the energy company was appreciative of the extensive review process undertaken by DeKalb County, and approval vote. He called the Owens Creek and Red Maple projects a “positive addition” to the county and state by “bringing proven, reliable energy to the region.”
“Leeward has a strong record of community collaboration for projects throughout the U.S. and we will continue that commitment by working closely with DeKalb County and the local community as the project moves forward,” Thornton said. “We are committed to creating an environmentally and culturally sensitive project and will continue to proactively engage community organizations and local leaders as we’ve done throughout the development process.”
Thornton also touted revenue which DeKalb County can expect to collect through increased property taxes from the solar projects. According to an economic impact study, projected tax revenue for the Owens Creek solar project after 30 years is $76.5 million. For Red Maple, it’s $49.4 million, for a combined total of $126 million, or $6.3M annually with the Leeward projects.
So many showed up to speak at or observe the solar farm centric meeting that overflow seating was used outside the meeting room, allowing viewers to watch the proceedings on a screen.
Mayfield Township resident John Lyon, who opposes the projects, said his family has been farming in DeKalb County for eight generations since 1835. He said Wednesday he wanted to see more generations enjoy the land as he has.
Lyon said after the vote he wasn’t sure what his next steps might look like.
“I don’t know how to react at this point,” Lyon said.
Linh Nguyen, a Northern Illinois University instructor and doctor who’s running as a Democrat for DeKalb County Clerk and Recorder, voiced support for the projects. After the meeting, she said she applauded the County Board for combating the global climate crisis while also addressing local impacts for future generations.
“They made history today by putting DeKalb County on the national stage as a champion for renewable energy,” Nguyen said. “My children, their children, and all of our children will be better because of their visionary leadership.”
DeKalb County Board member Craig Roman was the one who suggested the changes to the number of feet required in between the solar developments and residential property, in line with a recommendation by Dale Clark, public hearing officer for the county suggesting a 500-foot buffer. Current county code requires a 100 foot setback from property lines.
Roman said the project applicants were agreeable to the 300 foot distance before the board’s votes on Wednesday.
“I just want people to understand 300 feet is a football field,” Roman said. “... If you’re sitting on one end of the field, it’ll be hard to see the goal post on the other side.”
The proposals are slated for development in the southern portion of the county.
The Samsung solar plot will be in Milan Township between McGirr Road to the north, Haumesser Road to the east, Hermann Road to the south and Wilrett Road to the west, according to county documents. The 500-megawatt Owens Creek solar farm will be located in Mayfield and South Grove townships, west of Glidden Road, south of Base Line Road and north of Illinois Route 64. The Red Maple will be set up in Afton and Pierce townships, south of Gurler Road and north of Perry Road.
The Samsung development must be completed by June 30, 2023 and the Leeward projects within 36 months of approval, according to county documents.
The County Board in August expanded the amount of local land eligible for solar energy allotment.
The board also voted that contractors must have trees planted before solar panel installation for screening purposes. The board’s recommendations also limit construction hours to between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.
Jim Pomillo, representative for Samsung, attended the Wednesday meeting but did not provide public comment for the DK Solar project. Representatives from Leeward Renewable Energy also were in attendance during the meeting but did not provide public comment.
Pomillo said after the Wednesday meeting the 300 foot setbacks pushes the DK Solar project a little bit further back than originally anticipated – although the original application still more than met county code requirements. He said the resulting revenue loss isn’t detrimental, whereas a 500 foot setback would have meant Samsung would have needed to get more land and resubmit its special use permit application next summer.
“It doesn’t make everybody happy, it doesn’t make everybody mad – it is perfect,” Pomillo said of the County Board vote. " ... I think the board did what it should have done to look out for what’s best for the community.”
This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 with additional comment from Leeward Renewable Energy representative Kevin Thornton.