The inside story on Minnetrista local issues: This blog is to inform citizens and give them a perspective on matters of importance in Minnetrista, MN. Opinions posted here are my own and do not reflect official positions of any public body or official.
After residents vehemently protested an application for a large and unsightly industrial ground mounted solar energy system in western Minnetrista, last November the city council slapped a moratorium on ground mounted solar systems. The ill conceived ordinance written in 2015 that allowed them is now in front of the Planning Commission tonight for revision.
Interested residents can listen in by calling the number at the top of the Minnetrista Planning Commission agenda. The suggested revisions to the ordinance are there as well, beginning on page 9.
Every bad idea starts somewhere. Minnetrista passed an ordinance in 2015 making ground mounted solar energy systems a “Permitted Use” on Ag Preserve parcels in the city and is now navigating possible litigation because of it. The purpose of the Agriculture Preserve zoning designation is to, obviously, preserve parcels for agricultural use. One would think that would preclude covering Ag Preserve lands with industrial ground mounted solar energy systems that make it impossible to grow anything. But no.
I started asking myself: How did this bad idea happen? Did a council member come up with it? Staff? An over zealous resident? Or was it initiated by some outside interest? Could our contracted city engineering firm, WSB Engineering, be involved somehow?
I asked the city’s planning department to send me some background and minutes of the meetings regarding the ordinance and this is what I found: A perfect example of outside interests influencing city policy in Minnetrista.
Below is a video from April 2015, several months prior to the ordinance being passed, where a representative from the company SolarStone made a presentation to the city council. Note about 5 minutes into the video he points out the “unique relationship, alliance, partnership” his company has with the city’s contract city engineering firm, WSB Engineering, that does their engineering, planning, environmental and construction services.” Well now, that explain$ a lot.
Also note how Whalen just can’t wait to have it brought up at a future work session and when she asks the council if they want to do so and gets absolutely no response she just makes the statement
Also note how Whalen just can’t wait to have it brought up at a future work session and when she asks the council if they want to do so and gets absolutely no response she just announces, unilaterally, that they will schedule a work session to explore it more. And they did. And they passed the ordinance a few months later in July.
Summergate Housing Development: For the Minnetrista council to consider the concept plan for the Summergate housing development, proposed for North of County Road 110W and West of Saunders Lake, first it had to decide whether or not to amend the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan which has those parcels zoned as Urban Reserve (guided for future residential development). Part of the amendment process would be to rezone and extend utilities to the area. The Metropolitan Urban Service Area (MUSA line) abuts the SE corner of the area.
Several residents of the South Saunders neighborhood to the East of the proposed development expressed concerns about increased traffic, safety and demands on the city’s water and sewer infrastructure as well as the housing density in the current concept plan.
Amending the comprehensive plan would have indicated the council’s openness to rezoning and extending utilities and would give the developer an opportunity to submit a revised plan addressing all the concerns.
To amend the city’s comprehensive plan requires a super majority of 4 (out of 5) votes. The council did not vote on the matter as it became clear 3 of the 5 members were opposed to it. The audio of the discussion is available here and starts at about 10:21.
Ground mounted solar on Ag Preserve: There were two items on the council’s agenda regarding ground mounted solar on Ag Preserve properties Monday night. One was to deny the site plan submitted for the solar farm on the parcel located on the NE corner of Highland Road West and CR92 and the other was to impose a moratorium on ground mounted solar energy systems on Ag Preserve parcels.
The council went into a closed session prior to the council meeting regarding possible litigation related to these items.
At the council meeting the resolution to deny the site plan was postponed to the council’s December 7 meeting. The resolution authorizing a moratorium on ground mounted solar energy systems on Ag Preserve parcels was passed and the city will conduct a study for the purpose of determining whether and how to amend the 2015 zoning ordinance that made these systems a “permitted use” on Ag Preserve parcels.
9% wage increase over 3 years for Public Works: Minnetrista’s Public Works employees will receive a 9% wage increase spread out over the next 3 years. The council passed a resolution authorizing the labor agreement on a 4-0 vote with Bruce absent (I had dropped off the council meeting due to illness at approximately 9pm). My one vote wouldn’t have made a difference and I was too miserable to argue about union negotiations that exclude council members and are conducted solely by the city administrator.
The proposal for the ground mounted solar farm on the Ag Preserve parcel was soundly defeated last night at Minnetrista’s council meeting. At one point during the online meeting I counted 30 people on the call and the council received a steady stream of letters of opposition since the proposal appeared here on October 7.
The issue wasn’t around the pros or cons of solar energy production, it was about a 2015 ordinance, passed under the leadership of Lisa Whalen, that made ground mounted solar farms a “permitted use” on Minnetrista’s Ag Preserve parcels without requiring the notification of neighbors, establishing limits or defining other parameters around commercial/industrial uses and visual aesthetics.
The proposal came to the council with a recommendation from the Planning Commission to approve it. Minnetrista council candidate and planning commission member Damian Young voted, along with the entire planning commission to unanimously recommend it’s passage. It was clear from the contents of the council packet for Monday’s meeting that our city attorney had spent considerable time defending the proposal and justifying how it met all the requirements in order to be passed.
I have no doubt, absent resident involvement and their willingness to express their opposition, this proposal would likely have passed last night.
For now the council decided to place a moratorium on ground mounted solar farms on Ag Preserve parcels in order to have time to review the 2015 ordinance and either modify or rescind it.
Knowing what is coming before the council is necessary to protect residents’ interests. Citizen involvement in Minnetrista is important and makes a difference in how our city is governed. It’s not enough to merely post a 200 page council packet on the city’s website or put legal notices in small print in the local newspaper. Minnetrista needs to do a better job engaging and welcoming resident involvement instead of issuing veiled threats to council members that do.
I posted my concerns hereabout what appears to be a commercial/industrial ground mounted solar farm proposed to be located on an Ag Preserve parcel in Minnetrista. Some neighboring property owners were concerned they hadn’t been notified by the city and feared they might not be heard on the matter. I met with them and then notified residents via Nextdoor and Facebook about the proposal coming before the council tonight, Monday, October 19 at 7pm (Directions to Join the online meeting here).
Below is a post on Lisa Whalen for Mayor’s Facebook page this morning making a veiled threat that an open meeting law violation may have occurred by my engaging with residents.
Implying I may have violated the open meeting law by notifying people of this agenda item and the concerns I have about it is just an intimidation tactic which shows how closed and controlling this administration is. The term “open” as used in the “open meeting law” is meant to make sure decisions are not made behind closed doors by a quorum of council members. The only thing I’m guilty of here is making sure residents are aware of this agenda item. That is not a violation of being “open.” It is the very essence of being open.
Trying to silence those that see things differently has been a hallmark of Minnetrista’s current administration. Thank you Mayor Whalen for giving us such a great example of it.
I wrote previously about the ground-mounted solar farm proposal here located in Minnetrista on an Ag Preserve parcel on the NE corner of Highland Road West & CR 92. The council has received a number of emails from neighboring residents regarding the proposal. For those wishing to speak at the council’s “Persons to be heard” session Monday night during the virtual meeting (not at city hall) below is the call in information:
It’s not required but will speed up the meeting if those wishing to speak would send their names and telephone numbers (so you can be identified on the call) to our City Administrator Mike Barone, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For those wishing to see the information provided to the council on this proposal, the council’s packet can be found here. The proposal agenda item begins on page 49.
I met with some very concerned residents this morning on West Highland Road just east of CR92 to look at a 38 acre parcel zoned Agricultural Preserve that is a proposed site of what appears to be a commercial-industrial, ground mounted solar farm. I reviewed the September 28 Planning Commission meeting packet where it was addressed starting on page 24 and where a detailed site map appears on page 39 (also below):
I was somewhat surprised at the City Planner’s recommendation that appeared on page 27: “Recommended Action: Motion to recommend the City Council approve the requested site plan for a ground-mounted solar energy system …” and even more surprised to find out the Planning Commission had voted unanimously to recommend its approval to the city council. There was enough concern at that meeting, however, to make another motion, which passed, to ask the council for clarification about the intent of a 2015 ordinance that apparently allows this. The matter should be coming before the council likely as soon as October 19.
Interestingly in 2015 the Minnetrista city council, at the time, adopted an ordinance making ground mounted solar energy systems a “Permitted Use” on properties zoned Agriculture Preserve. On most other rural properties however (other than Ag Preserve) a conditional use permit is required for ground mounted solar energy systems.
My concerns about this specific proposal are many as I’ve outlined below:
This appears to be a commercial or industrial use which directly conflicts with Ag Preserve zoning. Minnetrista’s history of granting properties the Ag Preserve status has always been to maintain the rural ambiance of our community and the preservation of agricultural land for farming, not to promote it’s use as an industrial or commercial eyesore.
A “Permitted Use” doesn’t require the notification of surrounding properties but the size of this particular plan has already made neighboring residents concerned about its aesthetics and the impact of this use on the market valuation of their properties within its site line. I believe the council should discuss amending the 2015 ordinance, rescind it entirely or at least make these systems require a conditional use permit so impacted properties can weigh in.
Other cities that have allowed ground mounted solar farms have experienced problems when the companies involved either dissolve or disappear leaving the city to dispose of out-dated systems that can’t be recycled or easily removed. It can end up being an expensive burden to the city. Requiring a deposit sufficient to pay for the complete removal of the system should be part of any systems the city allows.
Renewable energy production is something we all support but we also need to preserve our rural agricultural and farming communities and the beautiful landscapes we all so enjoy in Minnetrista.
Residents interested in being heard on this matter can send an email to Minnetrista’s City Administrator, Mike Barone: email@example.com requesting 3 minutes at the “Persons to be heard” part of the city council meeting when it is scheduled.