Minnetrista is placing a maximum 1-year moratorium on ground-mounted solar in its agricultural preserve (AgPreserve) districts, pending further review of a 2015 ordinance that had given developers more leeway in the installation of these systems.

The action, agreed to by city council members in a 5-0 vote Oct. 19, comes after some debate over whether a trio of solar farms should be approved for what is now a vacant square of land just southwest of Whaletail Lake, at the corner of Highland and County Road 92.

At issue was not solar energy itself but instead the interpretation of part of the city’s zoning code that some officials saw as intended only for small-scale projects, not commercial enterprise.

The 5-6 acres of solar panels that had been proposed for the 36-acre corner site prompted planning commissioners last month to do a site plan review, a requirement for any new or changed use of land in AgPreserve districts. Though zoned AgPreserve, the property that was under review is not part of the Ag Preserve program, which comes with certain tax benefits.

The stream of public comment that city officials received between the planning commission’s Sept. 28 recommendation for approval of the system and the Oct. 19 council session, as well as commissioners’ request for clarification of the 2015 ordinance, was enough to give council members some pause.

Current language in Minnetrista’s zoning code references perimeters that limit ground-mounted systems to side and backyards, “which to me points, at least in my interpretation, points to the logic that it was intended for individual residents—homeowners—who wanted to put it in their back yard and put a few panels in to help supplement and use the electricity for their own personal use—their homeowner’s use—not as a commercial project,” said council member John Tschumperlin.

Neighbors to the proposed system also dialed into the Oct. 19 meeting to express their surprise that they hadn’t been given further notice about the proposal. “We’re quite surprised to learn that a solar farm of this size and magnitude would be built with no public notice or hearings,” one of them said.

Minnetrista does not require public notice for these types of projects in AgPreserve districts, but the uncertainty felt at both the planning commission stage and at council over interpretation of the existing code fed into council’s unanimous denial of the applicant’s request and led Mayor Lisa Whalen to ask for the moratorium in order to give the city time to review the ordinance.

A moratorium, which can be in place for a maximum of one year, is a more efficient route for reconsidering a zoning ordinance than just rescinding that part of the zoning code outright, said Ron Batty, city attorney for Minnetrista. Changes in the zoning code require consideration by the planning commission, including a public hearing, before making it to council whereas an interim ordinance—like a moratorium—requires only council approval.

Before the issue had even reached the council, Minnetrista’s planning commissioners had found themselves with similar questions about the ordinance, having capped nearly two hours of discussion Sept. 28 with a request for clarification of the 2015 ordinance, which had expanded the allowable types of solar in Minnetrista to include ground-mounted systems and which provided for certain performance standards for these systems.

Prior to that ordinance, only roof-mounted systems were permitted. The new ordinance also established that in all residential and ordinary agricultural districts that these systems were allowed as accessory uses if a conditional use permit were obtained.

But not so in AgPreserve. Here, solar is permitted without any CUP requirement, although a site plan review is needed if the proposed system constitutes a new use or major change to the use of the property—as it would have in the recent proposal reviewed by commissioners.

Although officials determined that solar does seem to be allowed as a primary use in AgPreserve—unlike in other zoning districts for which language in the zoning code specifically relegates solar to accessory use—many of the performance standards outlined in the code concerning location and aesthetics still read so as to assume the system is an accessory use, not a primary use.

Council is expected to vote on a formal resolution imposing the moratorium and initiating review of the ordinance at its next meeting, Nov. 9.

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