Here comes the sun: Lee County Board approves 3,800-acre solar project

This map illustrates the footprint of the proposed 4,000-acre solar farm south of Dixon.

DIXON - The Lee County Board gave a favorable light to a 3,800-acre solar development just south of the city.

South Dixon Solar LLC, of Duke Energy, petitioned the county in 2020 for a special-use permit to build a utility-grade solar farm, but the Lee County Board ultimately voted in February 18-to-4 against the proposal after residents raised concerns that not all surrounding neighbors were properly notified via mail of the project as required.

The company re-petitioned the county during the last few months, and the County Board approved the project in a 13-to-7 vote Tuesday without much discussion. Several community members came to see the outcome for the project, but none spoke as there wasn’t a public comment option prior to the vote.

Board member Jim Horstman, who voted against the project, said the board needed to recognize the corrected Land Evaluation Site Assessment, or LESA, score, which rates the quality of soil and prevents building on areas with a score higher than 225 to preserve prime farmland.

The average LESA score for the land is 192.3, which is a far cry from the original incorrect rating of 81.

“I think it denies the ordinance to say that an 111-point divergence on the 300-point LESA scale is of no importance,” he said.

The Zoning Board unanimously voted to give the project a favorable recommendation following about 2 months of a quasi-judicial hearing process where testimony, evidence and public comment was presented to the Zoning Board with nine witnesses providing testimony as well as more than a dozen people making public comments.

The board found that the project would comply with local, state and federal standards – it’s an acceptable use on agricultural land, and it would have no apparent environmental concerns. Most of the land, 89.3%, is used for row crops, and solar panels would take up around a third of the 3,838-acre project footprint.

The $450 million project would generate enough energy to power 100,000 homes, and it could bring in about $59 million in property taxes across the 40-year lifespan of the project, said Jeff Neves, business development director at Duke.

The company lined up lease agreements for 3,838 acres of farmland across 51 parcels involving 25 participating landowners.

Prairie grasses would be planted in the project footprint to attract pollinators and improve drainage, and trees would be planted along the fence line as a visual buffer for neighbors.

Construction will take place sometime between 2022 and 2024, taking about 18 months to 2 years for completion. An estimated 450 temporary construction jobs would be created and five to 10 full-time jobs are estimated to open for operations and maintenance.

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Rachel Rodgers

Rachel Rodgers

Rachel Rodgers joined Sauk Valley Media in 2016 covering local government in Dixon and Lee County.