By Susan Van Cleaf
The Independence City Council, Tuesday, July 26, was asked to approve an ordinance amendment regulating solar energy systems located within the city, but the document does not mention community solar gardens.
The conspicuous absence of community solar from the ordinance left City Councilors without an answer to a giant question: What should the council do about a request from Ecoplexus, a developer of community solar gardens?
As the meeting progressed, one thing became clear. A number of Independence residents did not want community solar gardens in their city.
In January, Ecoplexus expressed interest in constructing a CSG facility on 73.73 acres at 1351 Nelson Road, but Independence did not have any ordinances regulating solar energy facilities.
Nathan Rogers, of Ecoplexus, and Barbara Janas, trustee for the property, asked the city to enact an ordinance amendment that would allow community solar as an accessory or conditional use on property zoned as Agricultural and classified as Agricultural in Independence’s Comprehensive Plan.
The City Council directed city planning staff and the Planning Commission to look at a variety of types of solar energy facilities, including community solar systems and those on business and residential property. The end product would be an ordinance amendment that would address installation and use of solar energy systems.
Independence residents flocked to five months of public hearings on the issue and spoke up about what they did and did not want. The resulting ordinance amendment allows roof-mounted and ground-mounted solar energy systems on residential and business property, and that’s all. Three words, “community solar gardens,” are absent.
A community solar garden provides locally produced power to subscribers, who lock in their future electric bills at current rates. The power users are different from the ones mentioned in the Independence solar energy ordinance. These users are businesses or residents on property where the solar energy arrays are located.
City Attorney Bob Vose, on July 26, said the City Council was being asked to consider two issues. One was the proposed solar energy ordinance amendment. The other was the Ecoplexus request for an ordinance amendment allowing community solar gardens.
The council could act on the solar energy ordinance amendment at any time, he said, but the clock was ticking on the Ecoplexus request. The City Council was legally required to deny or accept the request for a community solar garden amendment within a certain number of days. If the council did not take action that night, the city would have to ask Ecoplexus for 60 additional days in which to consider the request.
Meanwhile, city councilors received a clear signal from 24 Independence residents who had signed almost identical letters to the city. Prior to the meeting, resident LuAnn Brenno said she had written the letter, and all the signees had attended the Planning Commission public hearings.
The letter writers urged the council to approve the ordinance as recommended by the Planning Commission.
The letters said, “Over five months of public hearings, the Planning Commissioners listened to testimony from many individuals covering the issues. In addition to considering written comments and testimony, the Planning Commission considered many solar energy ordinances that have been adopted by surrounding communities. The proposed ordinance is consistent with those of cities on all sides of Independence.”
Rogers, of Ecoplexus, took the podium and explained the advantages of community solar gardens. He said CSGs are made from glass and steel, as are greenhouses. They fit with agricultural land uses and rural areas. CSGs do not produce greenhouse gases, odors, noises or waste byproducts. Facilities have less than one percent impervious surface coverage and can be seeded with plants that attract pollinators.
Rogers said the state Public Utilities Commission requires CSGs to be on line by the end of 2017 in order for the developers to receive tax credits. Developers would pass the savings on to subscribers.
Independence resident Brenno said the Planning Commission had heard Rogers’ presentation and everything was considered. The commission asked attendees at public hearings to speak up about what kind of solar power they wanted for the city. The majority did not want community solar gardens.
Brenno asked the City Council to approve the solar energy ordinance amendment.
Each councilor talked about how they stood on the CSG issue.
City Councilman Brad Spencer said he understood the benefits of community solar gardens. He also respected the Planning Commission, which had taken public comment and thought things through.
Spencer said he supported the Planning Commission.
“I am here to support the people who elected me,” said Spencer.
Mayor Marvin Johnson said the proposed ordinance amendment was “very discriminatory,” and “property owners have rights. We have to be aware of the that.”
He also said, “We are closing our minds to the future.”
City Councilor Ray McCoy said he was miffed by the fact that the council was required to make a quick decision on community solar gardens. He said that the issue should be addressed as Independence updates its comprehensive plan. He also noted that owners of large plots of agricultural land need a source of income.
Councilor Steve Grotting said he did not agree with the ordinance amendment in its current state. Legislating an issue from the top (the state) on down pits neighbors against neighbors, he said.
“We could come up with a solution that works for both sides,” suggested Grotting.
Councilor Linda Betts said the proposed ordinance amendment would be fine.
With a 3 to 2 vote, the City Council approved the ordinance amendment as recommended by the Planning Commission. Johnson and Grotting cast the “no” votes. The council then voted unanimously to deny the request from Ecoplexus for an ordinance amendment that would allow community solar gardens.
The council will hold a special meeting to consider a resolution that will spell out, in writing, reasons for denying the Ecoplexus request. The reason would be that Independence’s zoning ordinances do not allow community solar gardens.