Solar farms ordinance advances

URBANA — In addition to harvesting corn and soybeans, some Champaign County farms could soon harvest sunlight for conversion into electricity.

The Champaign County Board’s Environment and Land Use Committee unanimously voted Thursday night to begin a 30-day review period for a proposal allowing photovoltaic solar farms on certain agricultural properties. The proposal would require amending county zoning ordinances.

“A photovoltaic panel is one that is meant to absorb the sunshine and convert it to electricity,” said zoning administrator John Hall. “It is the kind of solar panel that has the fewest issues related to it.”

Similar to a wind farm, a solar farm would require a special permit — only allowed in AG-1 and AG-2 agricultural zoning districts — from the county board.

Hall said allowing such a farm would be one way the county could encourage renewable energy.

Committee Chairman Aaron Esry said he is aware of multiple proposals to start up solar farms in the county, including a possible 1,200- to 1,300-acre solar farm near Sidney proposed by Irvine, Calif.-based BayWa R.E.

“I appreciate all the effort that the county, county staff and Zoning Board of Appeals did getting to this point,” said BayWa R.E. spokesman Patrick Brown.

Hall said there are seven solar-farm applications pending overall in Champaign County.

Under the proposal, no solar farm would be allowed within any contiguous urban growth area or within a half-mile of any zoned municipality, except as may be necessary to connect to an existing electrical substation.

The proposal also includes protections to existing drainage district tiles.

And if a solar farm is ever decommissioned, the proposal calls for the land to be reclaimed for agricultural use.

Two more steps are needed before the proposal could receive approval:

First, following the 30-day review period, the committee would have to vote to forward the amendment to the full county board; that vote is currently set for Aug. 9.

Then, if approved, the county board could take a final vote at its Aug. 23 meeting.

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