Jun 05, 2023

Pottawattamie County board backs engagement letter for wind, solar ordinance updates

(Council Bluffs) -- Pottawattamie County officials are seeking legal advice on wind and solar energy regulation updates in the county.

During its regular meeting Tuesday, the county board of supervisors unanimously approved signing an engagement letter with Lawyer David Levy with the Baird Holm Law Firm not to exceed $10,000 in fees to review and update the county's 2007 wind ordinance and begin establishing a new solar regulation. Matt Wyant is the planning and zoning director for the county. While his office would typically be equipped to handle the revisions to the wind ordinance and creation of a solar ordinance, Wyant says they were prompted to seek legal advice since there are companies in the process of acquiring land leases in the county for wind and solar projects.

"We have three ongoing projects right now of companies out there seeking wind farm sites and at least one active solar farm out there," said Wyant. "I think we would definitely benefit by having David come in and help us update the ordinances because we have those ongoing projects and to make sure we do it the right way to where it doesn't trigger anything with the companies."

Wyant says he has heard from one landowner who has signed on nearly 600 acres to a solar project and from Mid-American Energy after they saw the discussion on Tuesday's agenda. He adds the Baird Holm Law Firm also was recommended to him after their extensive work in Mills County's new solar ordinance.

Supervisor Susan Miller initially suggested beginning with just updating the wind ordinance to gauge how expensive the process would be at the law firm's hourly rate of roughly $430.

"I don't think it will take (Levy) that many hours to say 'this needs to be tweaked, these things are taller now, this needs to be the new setback,' but with the solar (ordinance) we're starting from ground zero," said Miller. "We want to have the best ordinance in place to protect our land and our property owners."

Between Levy's review and proposal of a new draft ordinance and the board's approval process, Wyant estimated it would take 60 to 90 days to establish an updated wind ordinance. County Attorney Matt Wilber says the $10,000 cap should provide, at the minimum, the current state of the county's ordinance wind and solar regulations and needed changes.

"Where they need tweaked and if it looks like there's going to be a substantial effort to modify them, he ought to be able to at least give us a cost estimate of that," said Wilber. "I think he should absolutely be able to evaluate our ordinances for that price and if it looks like it's minor tweaks he could probably do it all for that price. If it looks like it's a whole-sale overhaul of those ordinances, I think he needs to come in here and make a pitch to the board about why that's important."

In the meantime, for solar projects, Wyant says the solar proposals would have to go through as "accessory commercial structures" in the building permit process. However, he adds those regulations lack provisions specifically regarding solar arrays.

"What we don't have in there that's in a lot of (ordinances) is potential bonding on the company to have to remove them if they ever abandon the site and the glare piece of it would be in there as well, and then some setbacks specific to the arrays," said Wyant.

Once they reach the $10,000 cap, Wyant says he and Levy can update the board on where they are in the process and likely estimate how much it would take to complete their efforts. While it wouldn't be precisely the same, Wyant adds that the solar ordinance that Levy helped establish in Mills County could be used as a reference in the process.

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