Engineers testify for proposed 3,800-acre solar farm in Dixon

Access to transmission lines and level ground makes Lee County properties attractive

DIXON – Talks are continuing about project specifics for the proposed 3,800-acre solar development south of Dixon.

South Dixon Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, is re-petitioning the county for a special-use permit to build a utility-grade solar farm south of state Route 26 after failing to get county approval the first time.

The first petition was made last year and received a favorable recommendation from the Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals. When the item reached the Lee County Board in February, it voted, 18-4, against the proposal because of concerns that not all surrounding neighbors were properly notified via mail of the project as required.

The company must go through the zoning hearing process again, which includes several meetings where testimony and evidence is presented.

Board Vice Chairman Craig Buhrow asked project engineer Patrick Smith why it wants to develop in Lee County instead of elsewhere.

Smith said project locations are driven by access to transmission lines. Lee County would be a good site because of energy transmission, costs, and flat land, he said.

Jennifer Lawson, who lives next to the project footprint, previously had asked Smith at a county board meeting how the project would meet three key goals of the Lee County Comprehensive Plan, being to “maintain the agricultural economy in the county by limiting non-agricultural development on prime farmland, preserve the rural character and farming lifestyle of the county, and preserve and enhance the aesthetic quality of the county.”

Smith replied that although the project footprint is across 3,838 acres of farmland, panels will only go on about 20% of that. The company is exceeding county requirements with setbacks.

“We heard from a lot of the community that said they didn’t think the setbacks were large enough, and we increased them to preserve that character, and I think solar makes a great neighbor,” Smith said at the meeting.

Solar doesn’t have complications such as shadow flickers, noise, vibrations, hazardous materials or fumes, he said.

Jamie Lawson, Jennifer’s husband, then asked how Smith believed that a 3,800-acre project – nearly the size of the 5,000-acre city of Dixon – wouldn’t significantly alter the character of the land. Smith replied that wasn’t fair to say.

Lawson said at the meeting that the project would cut off any potential city development to the south in the Interstate 88 corridor.

Jason Cooper, a civil engineering consultant with Kimley Horn, later presented information about the site development, decommissioning, noise and glare studies, drainage and landscaping. Evergreen shrubs would be planted as a visual buffer for neighbors, and a pollinator-friendly grass would be planted.

Citing a study from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Cooper said groundwater effects would be negligible, not having much of an effect on volume of runoff. The grass, he said, also would help absorb water and develop a stronger root system.

The $450 million project is estimated to generate enough energy to power about 100,000 homes as well as bring in about $59 million in property taxes across the 40-year lifespan of the project. The solar company lined up lease agreements for 3,838 acres of farmland across 51 parcels involving 25 participating landowners.

The hearing process will continue at 6 p.m. Thursday. Community members are given the opportunity to question those testifying and will later be able to present testimony and/or public comment.

Rachel Rodgers

Rachel Rodgers

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