County Board OKs 11,000-panel Locust Street Solar Farm project north of Sterling

Approval comes despite city leaders’ objections

A 5-megawatt solar farm at Locust Street/state Route 40 and Science Ridge Road would not be compatible with Sterling's future industrial plans for that area, and so, in accordance with the Plan Commission recommendation, the City Council is submitting a letter of objection to the project to Whiteside County, which has the final say in issuing a special-use permit for the farmland.

STERLING – Over the objections of the city of Sterling, the Whiteside County Board approved of issuing a special-use permit to build a 5-megawatt solar farm at Locust Street/Route 40 and Science Ridge Road.

The board last month voted 15-10, with one abstention, which means Locust Street Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Boston-based Nexamp Solar LLC, will build on 28 acres of a 42-acre parcel of prime farmland at 3260 Locust St., in the southeast corner of the intersection.

If all goes as previously planned, ground will be broken in the fall.

Locust Street Solar Farm will have about 11,100 “modules,” or solar panels, which will be 20 feet tall at full tilt with a coating to reduce glare. The site will be monitored remotely, meaning little traffic to and from the site, which will be enclosed by an up to 8-foot fence.

It will take about six months to build and will create 20 to 30 construction jobs, the company has said.

Nexamp plans to lease the land, which has been owned by Bill Hermes of TN Hermes LLC in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the Hermes family of Sterling for 40 years. At the end of its life, Nexamp will decommission the farm, recycle or sell most of its components, and return the land to agricultural use, the company has said.

The City Council, which on the recommendation of its Plan Commission voted 4-2 on Oct. 18 not to support the permit, submitted a letter of objection to the county in October. In it, it said a solar farm would not be compatible with the city’s comprehensive plan in that area.

The land is just outside the city’s northern limits, north of Wahl Clipper Corp. and within 1.5 miles of Sterling’s planning jurisdiction.

Although no specific business or industry is planned at present, the city considers the area to be prime for development, noting that in anticipation, it had installed sewer lines in the area and that Illinois American water lines also are nearby.

In addition, the Illinois Department of Transportation built a roundabout at the intersection to accommodate an increase in traffic once the area is developed.

A solar farm instead of industrial expansion would mean less tax revenue for the city, and the city doesn’t have many large industrial sites left with the Meadowlands Business Park mostly filled, so that space – which is near a major highway – is needed for future development, city officials argued.

The final decision, however, rested with the county.

Although Whiteside County requires the project to be in line with the goals of the city’s comprehensive plan, the state passed legislation in March 2023 making it more difficult for counties to deny solar or wind farm applications, prohibiting counties from banning solar farms on land simply because it is zoned for industrial or agricultural use, as is the Nexamp site.

Under the new law, any special-use application that complies with the legislation’s requirements and other state and federal regulations must be approved.

Nexamp took the city’s comprehensive plan into consideration in its application for the permit.

A solar farm on the site would be “consistent with the purposes, goals, objectives and standards of the officially adopted comprehensive plan of the city of Sterling, [which] envisions a sustainable future that embraces clean-energy projects like solar installations, wind turbines and electric vehicle-charging stations,” it said in its proposal.

Nexamp said it chose the site “based on available land-use guidance, significant landowner interest, interconnection suitability and optimal solar resource.”

Jack Curry, who presented the company’s case at the October council meeting, said the Hermes family has no interest in allowing industrial expansion on its land and favored diversifying with a solar farm because the land easily can be returned to agricultural use once the solar farm is decommissioned.

Council members Joe Strabala-Bright and Josh Johnson voted in favor of allowing the project.

In May 2018, Pennington Solar LLC unsuccessfully sought a special-use permit from the county, seeking to build a 2-megawatt community solar project in the same area but northeast of Wahl Clipper.

A letter of objection from the Plan Commission and the council also was issued in that instance, also because a solar farm would not fit the goals of the city’s comprehensive plan and would interfere with future development plans.

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Kathleen Schultz

Kathleen A. Schultz

Kathleen Schultz is a Sterling native with 40 years of reporting and editing experience in Arizona, California, Montana and Illinois.