Local News

Solar farm planned along Route 14 in Woodstock given more time in split vote

Opponents of proposal feel field of panels is not the best use for a gateway into the city

Two Woodstock City Council members last week took issue with plans to develop a solar power farm at the northwest corner of Route 14 and Lily Pond Road, arguing a better use for the city could be developed along such a heavily traveled thoroughfare.

Despite the opposition, the Woodstock City Council voted, 4-2, to extend a special use permit that will allow California-based Borrego Solar Systems, Inc., to construct a 2-megawatt solar energy harvesting operation.

A megawatt of solar power provides enough electricity for just less than 150 Illinois homes on average, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The two no votes came from council members Tom Nierman and Bob Seegers. Council member Gordie Tebo was absent.

“If we settle for this, it’s never going to bring any serious tax dollars,” Nierman said at the meeting. “Eventually a whole lot of that corridor is going to get developed, and we could get some real tax money out of it.”

The disagreement highlighted differences between how the city’s elected leaders form their views on which uses of land would be most beneficial to the public, with council member Wendy Piersall contending a display of green energy production at an entryway to the city shows a local commitment to environmentalism.

She said that would be valuable for the city, but Seegers said he thinks a less passive use of the space along highway frontage, such as a business that could generate tax revenues for the city, is more desirable.

“I’m a little uncomfortable with saying what we want on somebody’s private land. That’s really not our place to say what should happen,” Piersall said. “If the land owner wants to do something there, it’s private property. We can have our hopes about this, but I am in complete disagreement in terms of I am a huge fan of solar.”

Without the extension of the special use permit to allow large-scale solar production, the zoning for the property would have reverted back to the city’s office district designation.

City Manager Roscoe Stelford said the city does not draw revenues from solar energy generation other than property taxes, and he said the undeveloped parcel’s value would not rise dramatically with the solar use.

Seegers also raised concerns with the fact this is the second extension granted for the solar project since the special use permit was first approved in 2018, and construction has not yet started on the site yet.

He proposed requesting a non-refundable fee from the developer as a condition of approval, but city attorney Ruth Schlossberg advised the council not to discuss that idea because the city is prohibited from making deals that would appear to “sell zoning.”

Seegers was unaware of that, and said the pitch was meant to be a guarantee for the city that the project would proceed.

The special use permit was extended by one year in August last year, and last week’s decision also gave Borrego an additional year to start its operations. The company expects work to start in June 2022, city staff said.

“It is a valuable piece of property,” Mayor Mike Turner said. “There was value to me at the time when I voted for this, to the business being there and the solar nature of it as well was of value to me.”