Minnesota Developer Sues for Solar Garden Permit

RED WING, Minn. (CN) – A solar development firm sued a small Minnesota town over its refusal to allow the company to build a community solar-energy garden based on ambiguous requirements in a zoning ordinance.

GreenMark LLC filed a lawsuit against Wacouta Township in Goodhue County District Court on Friday, claiming the municipality has blocked its plans to build a five mega-watt, 28-acre solar garden.

“GreenMark’s planned community solar garden will discontinue peat mining and hay farming disturbances to the wetlands on the property and will incorporate more modern agricultural and land preservation practices. It will also result in reducing carbon emissions compared to coal-fired power generation,” according to the complaint. “It is estimated that GreenMark’s proposed project for the property will reduce carbon emissions equivalent to 500 passenger plane rides from London to New York City per year.”

The company says it contracted with a local family to lease the Goodhue County project site, conditioned upon land use and other approvals needed to build the solar energy system.

GreenMark partners with companies to develop sustainable business practices. On the line is its $900,000 deposit paid to Xcel Energy to allow the connection of its solar garden to Xcel’s power grid.

GreenMark says it has obtained all legally necessary land use approvals, but a conditional use permit, or CUP, is still at the center of its dispute with Wacouta.

“The township denied GreenMark’s CUP application by applying an undefined and ambiguous CUP provision that restricts commercial and industrial uses in agricultural districts to those ‘primarily intended to serve the agricultural community,’” the lawsuit states.

The term “agricultural community” is not defined in the ordinance so the township’s attorney drafted possible definitions for the planning commission and town board to choose from, according to the complaint.

The planning commission selected an option that defined an “agricultural community” as “those enterprises and citizens engaged in agricultural operations.”

The town board chose a different definition – “those enterprises and citizens engaged in agricultural operations and the processing of agricultural products.”

“The township concluded that GreenMark’s proposed Community Solar Garden failed to meet the township’s standard because ‘while it will incidentally benefit the agricultural community [it] is not primarily intended to benefit the agricultural community,’” the complaint states.

GreenMark says it met the language of the township ordinance because more than half of its solar garden will be teeming with native vegetation that can be classified as a pollinator habitat.

In addition, its project preserves open space and habitat and will offer preferential subscriptions the local agricultural community before offering subscriptions to other potential solar users, according to the complaint.

GreenMark wants a judge to declare that the township has exceeded its powers by enforcing an ambiguous zoning ordinance and to order a writ of mandamus directing the township to issue a building permit to GreenMark.

Wacouta Township did not immediately respond Monday to an email requesting comment.

GreenMark is represented by Gary Van Cleve of Larkin Hoffman Daly & Lindgren in Minneapolis.

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