CC Regular Session   7. 1.          
Meeting Date: 11/28/2017  
By: Chris Anderson, Community Development

Adopt Ordinances Related to Connexus Energy Solar Array (Project No. 17-135); Case of Connexus Energy
  1. Ordinance #17-13 Amending Official Zoning Map to guide the Property as Public/Quasi-Public to guide future uses
  2. Ordinance #17-14 Amending Zoning Code amending allowable uses in the Public/Quasi-Public District allowing Solar Energy Systems as a Conditional Use Permit
The purpose of this case is to provide final adoption of two (2) ordinances associated with the proposed Connexus Energy Solar Garden. Approvals were given to the project on November 14, contingent upon final adoption of the two (2) ordinances associated with this case.

Connexus Energy has applied for a Zoning Amendment and a Conditional Use Permit to construct a new solar garden on the property legally described as Lot 3, Block 1 River Crossing Addition (the "Subject Property"). The system would have the capability of producing 3.5 megawatts (MW) with ground mounted solar photovoltaic panels and would include 6 MW of battery storage. This is one of three (3) sites within Anoka County that Connexus Energy is developing to produce solar energy.

The Subject Property is owned by Anoka County and would be leased by Connexus Energy. When the City contemplated solar energy systems several years ago, the Zoning Code was amended to consider ground or building mounted solar energy systems as a permitted accessory use in any zoning district. However, it did not account for, or address, the possibility of a solar energy system being the principal use of a property, as would be the case with Connexus' proposal.

Both the current zoning standards for solar energy systems and the information submitted by Connexus are attached for reference. The final design plans are in the process of being prepared by the solar developer (based on site work being conducted now) but are not complete at this time. They have stated that they do not anticipate any major changes from the initial proposed layout and the Site Plan would still be subject to review and approval by the City.

Connexus Energy had originally contemplated an expansion of their existing solar garden on the outlot adjacent to their campus. However, City Staff suggested that they consider alternative locations within the City so that their outlot could be reserved for potential future commercial/industrial development. Connexus Energy did consider a few alternative locations but ultimately entered into negotiations with Anoka County to lease the Subject Property.

This case was originally reviewed by the Planning Commission at their September 7, 2017 meeting. A Public Hearing was held (and closed) that evening; however, the Planning Commission tabled action so that the Economic Development Authority (EDA) had an opportunity to review and provide feedback specifically on the potential use of the Connexus Energy campus for the proposed solar installation.

The EDA reviewed this case at their September 14, 2017 meeting (minutes attached). Note that their review was specific to the potential use of the outlot owned by Connexus Energy that is part of Connexus' corporate campus. The outlot is essentially rectangular in shape and is approximately 17.5 acres in size. The EDA unanimously supported reserving this land for future economic growth opportunities (commercial/industrial development) rather than for the solar farm being considered. The EDA did not provide any input or feedback on the Anoka County-owned site that is currently being considered for the solar farm. Their motion specifically recommended to City Council that the existing Connexus Energy outlot be reserved for future commercial/industrial use rather than for a solar farm.

This request was reviewed again by the Planning Commission at their October 12, 2017 meeting. While there was not a second Public Hearing, the Planning Commission did allow comments from the public. Both sets of minutes from the September and October Planning Commission meetings are attached to this case. In general terms, the following comments, concerns, and/or questions have been raised through the review process thus far:
  • Aesthetics
  • Impact to property values
  • Financial surety to ensure equipment is removed
  • Landscape buffer
  • Will this deter future development
  • Is this the best location for this use
  • Timing of approval
The City Council approved the Conditional Use Permit on November 14, 2017, contingent upon adoption of Ordinances #17-13 (Zoning Map Amendment) and #17-14 (Zoning Text Amendment). Both Ordinances were introduced by the City Council on November 14, 2017 and are now eligible for adoption.
Staff attempted to notify all Property Owners within a 350 foot radius of the Subject Property of the Public Hearing held in September via Standard US Mail. The Public Hearing was also published in the City's official newsletter, the Anoka County Union Herald. Staff also attempted to notify all Property Owners within a 350 foot radius of the Subject Property that this item was scheduled to be considered by the City Council on November 14, 2017.
As noted, the Subject Property is owned by Anoka County and was initially acquired to accommodate a future bridge crossing. In 2007, the Subject Property was designated with an Official Map to prevent future development from occurring in advance of the bridge crossing. However, the current Highway 10 Access Planning Study no longer identifies this parcel as needed for a potential bridge crossing (with the new Armstrong Blvd overpass alignment). The Planning Commission has assumed the duties of the Official Map Board of Appeals and Adjustments and therefore, and has already taken action on an appeal to issue any type of development permit on the Subject Property per City Code Section 117-4 (Official Map).

As part of the Official Map process in 2007, it was noted that the Subject Property was zoned R-2 Residential and that the intention was to re-guide the parcel as Public/Quasi-Public with the 2008 Comprehensive Plan Update and then subsequently rezone the parcel to Public/Quasi Public. That action did not occur. However, based on the current owner of the Subject Property (Anoka County) and the proposed use (solar farm), it seems reasonable to rezone the property as Public/Quasi-Public (this would also complete the stated intent when the area was officially mapped) and to amend the uses of that zoning district to identify Solar Energy Systems as a principal use with the issuance of a Conditional Use Permit (this district already identifies municipal and private substations as a permitted use).

The Environmental Policy Board (EPB) was introduced to this concept at their July meeting and then officially reviewed this request at their August meeting. Questions that the EPB had asked are outlined below along with the responses from the solar developer and/or Connexus Energy.
  • Nuisance noise: The solar energy system will not have any moving parts (fans, panel movement/rotation, etc.) and therefore there should be no discernible noise generated, with the exception of the initial installation of the solar farm. The battery storage units would include air conditioning. As with any air conditioning system, the air condensing units would be outside and would generate some noise, but should be within allowable standards.
  • Glare: The panels will be at a fixed tilt, permanently facing south (away from Highway 10), and manufactured with anti-reflective glass specifically designed to reduce glare. Two (2) glare studies have been provided by the solar developer, one that focuses of Highway 10 and one that focuses on the areas south and west of the Subject Property. The studies do note that some glare would be produced. Specifically, one of the receptors near the southern touch-down point of the Armstrong Blvd overpass and another, near the residential lots along Bowers Drive. The receptor near the touchdown point of the overpass indicated that glare would be minimal and has low potential to create any after-image. The receptor adjacent to Bowers Drive (where the current agricultural land abuts the road) also indicated glare and did predict it would have the potential for temporary 'after-image' glare.
  • Environmental Benefits/Impacts: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, few power generating technologies have as little environmental impact as photovoltaic solar panels. A ground mounted solar array generates electricity without any moving parts, requires no water, and produces no direct emissions. Underneath the ground mounted equipment, native vegetation will be established, providing pollinator habitat as well as erosion control and stormwater runoff benefits. Connexus noted that all power generated by this solar energy system would remain in Ramsey.
  • Final Site Plan plans are being developed presently. Their design team is completing field work on the Subject Property necessary to complete the final design and Site Plan. However, it is not anticipated to have any significant impacts to the conceptual layout provided.
While a complete Site Plan is not yet available, consideration of the requested Zoning Amendments (both text and map) and Conditional Use Permit can still be addressed. The EPB recommended approval of the Zoning Amendments and Conditional Use Permit with the following conditions (which have been incorporated into the draft Conditional Use Permit):
  • Submittal of final Site Plan for review and approval by the City.
  • Submittal of a Glare Study (already received).
  • Submittal of a Decommissioning Plan (already received).
  • Installation of native, sustainable landscape underneath the ground mounted equipment (part of the proposal and added as condition to the Conditional Use Permit).
The City's Comprehensive Plan does address solar access protection within the Land Use Chapter. One of the identified policies for solar access protection is to work with the League of Minnesota Cities, University of Minnesota Extension Services, Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance (now part of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency), Anoka County, and other agencies to develop programs that increase the use of solar energy systems. It appears that the proposed project would further this policy.

Note that the attached (now approved with contingencies) Conditional Use Permit was prepared as if the Zoning Amendments, both the text and map amendments, were in effect already. Furthermore, a condition of the Conditional Use Permit states that the Final Site Plan and Landscape Plan is subject to review and approval by the City Council.

As previously noted, the Planning Commission conducted a Public Hearing at their September 7 meeting. While there was not a second Public Hearing at their October meeting, the Planning Commission again entertained comments from the public at that meeting. Comments/concerns focused primarily on the potential impact to property values if the solar project moved forward, possible impacts to future development of the areas surrounding the Subject Property, and compatibility with potential future development in the area. The Planning Commission had also raised the issue of Connexus providing additional landscaping to ensure a transitional or buffer zone is established. Presently, this is not included in the draft Conditional Use Permit but could be added if so desired by the City Council.

On November 14, 2017, the City Council approved the request for a Conditional Use Permit with contingencies and introduced both Ordinances (#17-13 and #17-14). The Ordinances are now eligible for adoption.


Alternative 1: Adopt Ordinances #17-13 (Zoning Map Amendment) and #17-14 (Zoning Text Amendment). When Anoka County acquired the Subject Property, the intention had been to rezone it to Public/Quasi-Public. Both private and municipal substations are already permitted uses within the Public/Quasi-Public District. It seems reasonable to also consider solar energy systems as a principal use of property in this district as a conditional use. This would not only encourage development of this renewable energy source but still afford the City to address requests on a case by case basis and apply reasonable conditions to an approval.

Alternative 2: Do not adopt Ordinances #17-13 and #17-14. This action would retain the current zoning of the Subject Property (R-2 Medium Density Residential) and leave the uses within the Public/Quasi-Public District unchanged. Furthermore, this action would also invalidate the Conditional Use Permit that was approved by the City Council on November 14, 2017, as that action was contingent upon adoption of both Ordinances.
Funding Source:
All costs associated with this request are the responsibility of the Applicant.
The Environmental Policy Board and Planning Commission recommended approval of the Zoning Amendments and Conditional Use Permit.

It is noted that since this project requires two (2) Zoning Amendments, the City is not obligated to approve said request if it feels it is not compatible with the surrounding area. That being said, the City does have the legal authority to approve this project with said Zoning Amendments if it feels it to be appropriate.
Motion to waive the City Charter requirement to read the Ordinances aloud and adopt Ordinances #17-13 and #17-14 amending the City's Official Zoning Map to Public/Quasi-Public to guide future land uses on the Property and amending City Code Section 177-122 (Public/Quasi-Public) to identify solar energy systems as a Conditional Use Permit to guide the approval process for these types of systems.

Roll Call Vote:

Councilmember Riley
Councilmember Johns
Councilmember LeTourneau
Councilmember Shryock
Councilmember Kuzma
Mayor Strommen

Site Location Map
Application Submittal
EPB Meeting Minutes Dated August 21, 2017
Decommissioning Plan and Glare Studies
Manufacturer Equipment Specifications
Site Layout and Typical Views of Panels and Battery Storage
Existing Solar Energy System Regulations
Aerial Overview of Connexus Energy Corporate Campus
Planning Commission Meeting Minutes Dated September 7, 2017
EDA Meeting Minutes Dated September 14, 2017
Draft Planning Commission Meeting Minutes Dated October 12, 2017
Ordinance #17-13: Zoning Map Amendment
Ordinance #17-14: Zoning Text Amendment
PowerPoint Presentation-Planning Division
Economic Development Input Summary
DRAFT City Council Meeting Minutes Dated November 14, 2017

Form Review
Inbox Reviewed By Date
Tim Gladhill Tim Gladhill 11/22/2017 09:37 AM
Kurt Ulrich Kurt Ulrich 11/22/2017 03:50 PM
Tim Gladhill Tim Gladhill 11/22/2017 09:37 AM
Kurt Ulrich Kurt Ulrich 11/22/2017 03:50 PM
Form Started By: Chris Anderson Started On: 11/21/2017 10:38 AM
Final Approval Date: 11/22/2017