Sterling doesn’t want a solar farm at Locust and Science Ridge roads

Officials: Project wouldn’t fit with industrial plans for the area, how about another site?

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 – A 5-megawatt solar farm at Locust Street/state Route 40 and Science Ridge Road would not be compatible with the city’s future industrial plans for that area, and so, in accordance with the Plan Commission recommendation, the City Council voted 4-2 Monday to submit a letter of objection to the county.

However, officials said a solar farm somewhere else in the city would be welcome, particularly on the west side.

Locust Street Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Boston-based Nexamp Solar LLC, is asking Whiteside County for a special-use permit to build on 28 acres of the 42-acre farmland site, at the southeast corner of the intersection. It would lease the land for 40 years.

That location would not jive with the city’s comprehensive plan, however, which calls for an industrial expansion of the area at some point, the city Plan Commission said.

The proposal first came before the council at its meeting Sept. 5, when members sent it to the commission for review. The final decision rests with the county.

Before agreeing to issue a permit, Whiteside County “requires that the special use be consistent with the purposes, goals, objectives, and standards of an officially adopted county comprehensive land use plan ... of a municipality with a 1½-mile planning jurisdiction.”

The land, owned by Bill Hermes of TN Hermes LLC in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the Hermes family of Sterling, is just outside the city’s northern limits, north of Wahl Clipper Corp. and within that 1.5-mile jurisdiction.

Although no specific business or industry is planned for the area at the moment, “the location has potential for future development, whether by a supplier that would want to collocate near one of the manufacturers on the north side, or even commercial development,” City Manager Scott Shumard said in an email Monday.

The city’s objections to the site are many:

• The area is prime for development, and steps in that direction already have been taken.

For example, utilities already are at hand – in anticipation of future growth, the city installed sewer lines, and Illinois American water lines are nearby – and extending them would not take much.

• North-south Route 40 carries about 5,000 vehicles a day through the intersection, and Science Ridge carries nearly 3,000, Shumard noted. The lllinois Department of Transportation recently completed a roundabout there, to improve safety and also to accommodate an increase in traffic once the area is developed.

• Allowing a solar farm there instead of industrial expansion would mean less tax revenue for the city.

• A road running from Route 40 to Sixth Avenue is planned, and the solar farm would be in the way.

• The city doesn’t have many large industrial sites left, with the Meadowlands Business Park mostly filled, and so that space, which is near a major highway, is needed for future development, Shumard said.

The city of Sterling has set aside land for a a road that will run from state Route 40 to Sixth Avenue, and the proposed Nexamp solar farm would be in the way.

Council members Joe Strabala-Bright and Josh Johnson thought the project – and the tax revenue it would bring – should be allowed, however, adding that no company has expressed an interest in developing the area in the last five years, and that in any event, there are other places where industrial expansion could occur, such as on the west side of Route 40.

“I’m not convinced that this is necessarily a bad idea,” Strabala-Bright said.

Nexamp did take 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.

In May 2018, Pennington Solar LLC also 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.

That’s not to say that city does not want a solar farm at another location – say, on the former Northwestern Steel and Wire Mill site, as Alderman Jim Wise suggested.

Wise, a solar farm supporter, nonetheless was opposed to the proposed location from the get-go, posting on his Facebook page the day after the Sept. 5 meeting that prime farmland should not be taken up for a solar farm when brownfields land on the west end of town is available.

“And the most beneficial customer of this solar farm would be our own Sterling Steel Corp., that uses a great amount of electrical energy to melt 600,000 tons of scrap steel every year, and needs a sustainable, clean source of energy to produce the steel it manufactures,” Wise posted.

At the meeting, Wise noted that the farmland in the project area is rated A-1 by the USDA, and that it was producing 200 bushels of corn per acre a year, meaning around 8,000 bushels a year would be lost for 40 years – all while brownfields land is available that can’t be used for many other purposes.

Shumard agreed.

“We have always had a welcoming attitude toward solar in the former mill property locations to the west,” he said in the email. “Much of the land is limited in reuses for a variety of factors, and we believe solar would be a very fitting use in those places.”

Nexamp said it chose the Route 40 site “based on available land-use guidance, significant landowner interest, interconnection suitability and optimal solar resource.”

In addition, Jack Curry with Nexamp, who made a pitch to the council Monday for the project, said that the Hermes family has no interest in allowing industrial expansion on its land, and favored diversifying with a solar farm precisely because the acreage can be returned to agricultural use once the farm is decommissioned.

The city’s objections do not necessarily spell the end of the project. Although Whiteside County requires the project be in line with the goals of the city’s comprehensive plan, the state passed legislation in March making it more difficult for counties to deny solar or wind farm applications.

Among other things, the new law prohibits counties from banning solar farms on land simply because it is zoned for industrial or agricultural use, as is the proposed Nexamp site.

If the application complies with the bill’s requirements and other state and federal regulations, the county must approve the a special-use permit. Wise speculated that the county may make its decision as early as November.

As currently proposed, the Locust Street solar farm would create 20 to 30 construction jobs during the six months or so it would take to build it, with work beginning in fall 2024, Nexamp said.

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

A gravel access driveway would be created, and a pollinator-friendly seed mix will be planted around the structure, according to the proposal. The company also may use grazing sheep to keep the site mowed.

Once the farm has reached the end of its life, Nexamp would decommission it and recycle or sell most components before the land would return to agricultural use, the company said.

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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.