What is a Solar Farm
Utility-scale solar a.k.a. solar farm is defined in Linn County as a group of interconnected solar panels/arrays that convert sunlight into electricity for the primary purpose of wholesale or retail sales of generated electricity. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) most US utility-scale solar power plants produce between 1-5 megawatts of solar power. However some can generate 50 megawatts or greater. The US currently has more than 2,500 utility- scale solar electricity generating facilities.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), “the primary defining characteristic of utility-scale solar projects are that they sell the power they generate directly into the electric grid. What distinguishes utility-scale solar from consumer-scale solar is both project size and the fact that electricity is sold to wholesale utility buyers, not end use consumers.”
Permitting Process and Information
A Utility-Scale Solar Project requires an application to rezone the area to be used for the solar installation to (RE) Renewable Energy Overlay Zoning District. The rezoning process is robust and includes benchmark reviews from the Technical Review Committee, Planning & Development staff, and the Planning & Zoning Commission before any application is presented to the Board of Supervisors.
The Linn County Planning & Zoning Commission will hear the rezoning request and will forward a recommendation of approval or denial to the Linn County Board of Supervisors. The Board of Supervisors will hold three public hearings for the rezoning request before making their final decision. All recommendations, including the final decision by the Board of Supervisors, must be based on the development standards for utility-scale solar contained in Linn County's Code of Ordinances section 107-117 (h). Additional standards may be imposed as part of the review process.
View a flow chart (PDF) of the solar permitting process.
Linn County held two public informational meetings for residents regarding the utility-scale solar permitting process.
The rezoning process is set up to allow applicants to petition to change zoning district boundaries or classifications of property as shown on the zoning maps while also giving the public a chance to participate. Any applicant wishing to rezone their property, including to a Renewably Energy Overlay Zoning District, will need to attend the following meetings:
Technical Review Committee
Upon receipt of a complete application for rezoning, Planning & Development staff will forward the application to the Technical Review Committee. The Technical Review Committee reviews the application for conformance with this article, the comprehensive plan, and other applicable plans, regulations, and design standards.
- The applicant and surrounding property owners shall be notified of the date and time of the Technical Review Committee meeting to review the application and shall be invited to attend.
- The public attending the technical review committee meeting may not comment during the meeting but may direct all questions to the Planning & Development staff at the conclusion of the meeting.
- The Planning & Development staff shall prepare a report on its findings. The report shall detail any recommended conditions for approval. The report shall be mailed to the applicant and submitted to the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.
Planning & Zoning Commission
The Planning and Zoning Commission will consider the Technical Review Committee's findings and staff recommendation of the application, and will consider the proposed rezoning during at least one public meeting before submitting its findings and recommendation on the application to the Board of Supervisors.
- The applicant and surrounding property owners shall be notified of the date and time of the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting and shall be invited to attend.
- Any members of the public and surrounding property owners are welcome to comment and ask questions at the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting. All comments will be entered into the public record.
- The Planning & Zoning Commission in making a decision on a rezoning shall make findings of fact and conclusions of law to ensure that the proposal is consistent with the comprehensive plan and the purposes and intent of this chapter, including, but not limited to, the standards for review contained in section 107-117 (h).
Board of Supervisors Public Hearing and First Consideration
After receiving the Planning and Zoning Commission's report of findings and recommendations on the proposed rezoning, the Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the proposal.
- The applicant and surrounding property owners shall be notified of the date and time of the hearing and shall be invited to attend. Notice of the public hearing shall be given not less than four nor more than 20 days before the time and place of the hearing in at least one publication in a newspaper of general circulation in the county.
Board of Supervisors Considerations
A rezoning request requires consideration by the Board of Supervisors at three public meetings. The Board of Supervisors will consider the application and make a decision to deny or approve based on the standards for review contained in section 107-117 (h). The decision to deny or approve may be made at any of the three consideration meetings, however, final consideration and approval shall not occur until all conditions of approval have been met. A decision to postpone the decision may also be made at the first or second consideration meetings. The following process will be followed by the Board of Supervisors in considering a rezoning request:
- The first consideration will occur immediately following the conclusion of the public hearing described in subsection (f) of this section.
- The second and third considerations will occur at two separate, subsequent public meetings of the Board of Supervisors.
Board of Supervisors Decision
The Board of Supervisors shall consider the findings and recommendations of the Technical Review Committee and the Planning and Zoning Commission, and the public comments received, and shall vote upon the adoption of the proposed rezoning and map amendment.
The proposed rezoning shall become effective by a favorable vote of a majority of the members of the Board of Supervisors. The Board of Supervisors, in making a decision on a rezoning application, shall make findings of fact and conclusions of law to ensure that the proposal is consistent with the comprehensive plan and the purposes and intent of this chapter, including, but not limited to, the standards for review contained in section 107-117 (h).
Factors Considered in Permitting a Utility-Scale Solar Project
Requests to rezone property to an RE (Renewable Energy) overlay zoning district must meet all current rezoning standards for review in Article IV, Section 107-69 of the Unified Development Code, with some exceptions as noted below. These standards for review are evaluated by Linn County Planning & Development staff in a report that is generated prior to the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting. The applicable rezoning standards for review are:
- The proposed development is not detrimental to existing agricultural uses;
- The proposed development will not degrade significant environmental, ecological or natural resources;
- The proposed development achieves densities and uses in agricultural areas, critical natural resource areas, rural residential development areas and urban service areas as designated in the comprehensive plan; and
- The proposed development is consistent with the goals, objectives and strategies of the comprehensive plan.
Standards for review which are not applicable:
- Adequate public utilities/minimum levels of service
- Animal feeding operations separation distance requirement
- Land evaluation and site assessment
- Rural village extension rezoning review standards
Linn County will require any solar developer to meet specific requirements and submit documents detailing and minimizing any impacts associated with the project. Specific requirements for solar projects include:
- Glare Minimization: All panels must be constructed to minimize glare or reflection onto adjacent properties.
- Screening: A landscape buffer may be required if deemed necessary by the Board of Supervisors.
- Fencing: A security fence must be installed along all exterior sides of the solar project per federal law.
- Setbacks: All structures (including solar arrays) must meet the minimum principal setback for the zoning district the project is located in.
Documents required of the solar developer by Linn County include:
- Road Condition Survey: The applicant will be required to conduct a preconstruction survey detailing the condition of the roads which will be used during the course of the project. The applicant will be responsible for on-going road maintenance and dust control measures during construction. Additionally, the applicant will be responsible for repair of any damage to public drainage systems.
- Operation and Maintenance Plan: The applicant will be required to submit a plan for the operation and maintenance of the solar installation, which shall include measures for maintaining safe access to the installation, storm water and erosion controls, as well as general procedures for operation and maintenance of the installation.
- Decommissioning and Site Reclamation Plan: The applicant will be required to submit a plan detailing how the solar arrays will be removed and recycled, as well as how they will restore the site to pre-project conditions.
Decommissioning of Solar Farms
Most utility scale solar projects last for 25-30 years, which is the average lifespan of a solar panel. At the end of a utility scale solar project in Linn County, the applicant will be required to follow their approved decommissioning plan. All decommissioning plans must include details on:
- Recycling solar components
- Restoring the surface grade a soil profile of the site to pre-construction condition
- Removal of all structures including graveled areas and access roads
- Re-vegetation of restored soil areas with crops, native seed mixes, native tree species, and plant species suitable to the area
- A method for ensuring funds will be available for decommissioning activities
The decommissioning plan will take effect at the end of the project or following a continuous one-year period with no electricity generation. The project owner will have one year to complete all decommissioning activities.