The Lee County Zoning Board is recommending the proposed 5,000-acre utility grade solar farm near Steward and Lee be given the green light.
Steward Creek Solar LLC, of Virginia-based Hexagon Energy, is petitioning the county for a special-use permit to build the 600-megawatt solar farm across Alto and Willow Creek Townships bordering Ogle and DeKalb counties as well as Interstate 39 and Highway 30.
The board unanimously recommended the project following five meetings in a hearing process spanning more than 10 hours during the last few weeks; it will go to the County Board for a final vote Thursday.
Seven people provided testimony for the project, which is estimated to bring in around $80 million in property tax revenue across the 35-year life of the development. Construction would begin in fall 2022 if approved and the farm would become operational in 2024, generating enough energy to power 116,300 homes a year.
Hexagon owner and CEO Matt Hantzmon said they would be good neighbors and stewards of the land, planting native grasses and increasing soil retention and nutrients before returning it to agricultural use.
Four community members spoke against the solar farm during public comment, raising concerns that such a large development shouldn’t be located near homes or take prime farmland out of crop production.
“I just don’t think this is the proper area for it,” said Brian Herrmann, a resident and board member in Alto Township, adding that it would turn the area into 5,000 acres of glass.
“We have no do-overs on this once it’s done,” she said. “This is prime farmland; this is some of the most beautiful land I have ever seen.”
Steward resident Loren Guasto argued that there wasn’t adequate evidence that it wouldn’t negatively impact property values.
Andrew Lines of Chicago-based CohnReznick, a valuation advisory services group that has testified on behalf of solar companies in the past for property value impact studies, said there was no consistent, measurable negative impact shown with homes sold near solar farms. However, there also wasn’t data available for solar farms of such size that had homes nearby.
The board approved more than 60 findings of fact based on testimony and evidence before making a recommendation, and found that there was “insufficient evidence” presented that the “development would not have a negative impact on property values.”
Zoning Board member Glen Hughes said there was adequate information on smaller-scale projects, but “not sufficient comparables on the large scale.”
Hantzmon said they’re taking several steps to benefit the community and ease issues neighboring landowners would have, including additional work to mitigate drainage concerns, having setbacks of at least 300 feet from homes, and setting up not-for-profit organizations to benefit the Lee and Steward communities. Each village would receive $25,000 a year with 2.5 percent annual increases.
Within 35 years, the project is estimated to generate $51.5 million for the Steward, Rochelle and Indian Creek school districts, as well as $8.7 million for the county, $6.3 million for community colleges, $4.4 million for fire districts, $4.2 million for road improvements, and $2.6 million for towns.