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Peoria City Council rejects proposed solar farm

Supporters of the Peoria solar farm hold up signs at Tuesday's city council meeting.
Jess Moreano
Supporters of a Peoria solar farm proposal hold up signs at Tuesday's city council meeting.

The Peoria City Council has rejected a new solar farm on a six-acre site on near condominiums Reservoir Boulevard.

The Planning & Zoning Commission had previously unanimously denied the project because the development was proposed to be built just 80 feet away from residential condominiums.

Multiple members of the community attended the council's Tuesday night meeting to give their opinions concerning construction of the solar facility, and it seemed the public was just as divided as the council that voted 7-4 against the proposal.

Passing the ordinance would have enabled a six-acre solar panel farm to be built at 3901 Reservoir Blvd. by local solar energy company Hawk-Attollo, LLC. While many Peorians strongly advocated for the city to further embrace solar energy, the residents living in the condominiums adjacent to the site felt the developers picked the wrong location for the farm.

“We’ve done what we could to make this project as beneficial to all as we know how to, we chose a piece of land on the edge of the city that abuts the railroad tracks and is rather steep, and not good for much other development,” said the Rev. Jonathan Thomas of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church that partnered with Hawk-Attollo for the solar development project.

“(The project) creates jobs and tax revenue, and frankly, draws very little from city resources in return. It helps our environment and creates equity. It's innovative and helps move Peoria toward being a leader in new energy, which we can and should be.”

According to Joyce Rosenberger of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, such a farm would have a multitude of environmental benefits, saying a single acre of solar panels could annually save up to 300,000 pounds of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere from carbon-based sources, and solar panels could provide power for over 20 years from the sun, as opposed to from mining coal, fracking for gas, or drilling for oil.

“The City Development Review Board recommended approval of the (project) with conditions. The developer responded with multiple steps to meet the conditions and merit approval. Evergreen trees and other landscaping will be a buffer for the backyards of the strip of condominiums, which are the only residences on the street side of the project,” she said.

In general, proponents of the proposed solar development project argued the City of Peoria has an obligation to pursue developments that contribute to the battle against the ever-increasing threat of climate change. In addition, the development of the farm would create jobs for local tradespeople, and help Peoria homeowners and renters to lower their utility bills.

“(The) team worked diligently with city staff to have a design that is thoughtful and considerate to the surrounding environment, and complies with the zoning code requirements with appropriate modifications recommended such as screening and buffering at the property lines," said Jason Hawksworth, owner of Hawk-Attollo.

But residents of the condominiums near where the proposed farm would be built disagreed. Each of the residents who spoke out against the solar development said it wasn’t solar energy they were against, but rather the location of the proposed site, and the ways in which they believed it would affect their quality of living.

“I think solar power is great. I think low-income provisioning as part of the cost to go back to people that can't afford the high cost of utilities is fine,” said one resident. “At certain times of the year, there is a very strong possibility that when the sun hits those solar panels, it's going to come right back into those people that happen to be out in their patio, at their kitchen window, their dining room windows. It's just unfortunate that those nine people have their condos 75 to 80 feet from a solar panel farm.”

This particular number was brought up by three different residents — the condominium that these citizens live in is located 80 feet from the proposed farm, and their primary concern was that the developers should identify another piece of land not so close to residences that the panels could be built on.

"I'm a big (proponent) of alternative energy and I believe in climate change 100%,” said resident Donna Moore, “(but) the zoning commission unanimously denied the request for a six acre solar farm 80 feet from our back door.”

Council member Andre Allen, who represents the 4th District where the condominiums are located, said he feels obligated to respond to the feedback he had received and represent their concerns by voting against the farm.

“This decision does not reflect a negative disposition towards future solar or renewable energy projects in our district or city. Rather than focusing on the opposition, we can use this as an opportunity to engage and educate our constituents about open solar farms, which can help us develop a strategy that benefits both our citizens and solar developers,” he said.

Other council members, such as at-large councilwoman Beth Jensen, voted in favor of the development.

“We have been pushing for innovation and investment and for clean, renewable energy. And this is our first opportunity that our projects come forward to the City of Peoria. I understand some of the neighbors' concerns but I don't buy, based on the data and the evidence that I've seen, that this is going to be a project that is really going to interfere with the quiet enjoyment of their property,” she said.

Mayor Rita Ali also was in favor of going through with the project, arguing that solar is one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation, and this type of unique project for Peoria could be an inaugural opportunity to launch similar projects in the future.

Most of the meeting involved the continual back-and-forth between both the public and council members themselves. Ultimately, the council voted 7-4 to deny the ordinance, with members Allen, Cyr, Grayeb, Jackson, Kelly, Riggenbach, and Ruckriegel voting to deny, and members Jensen, Oyler, Velpula, and Mayor Ali voting to pass. The majority of council members who voted "no" stated that they were not against solar energy, but against the location.

“We've had some great speakers on both sides and some very valid points. And there are a lot of pros, more pros on why solar is right for our community,” said Ruckriegel. “But I think, for me, we've missed a step, we need to have an organized plan…the citizens who are impacted and the condominiums, I fully believe, are not against solar, they're wanting it utilized in a way that is consistent throughout the city.”

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