PRESS EDITORIAL: Solar energy is a good use for spare school land

School districts are not in the real estate business and should not own land unless it is being used for school purposes or is needed as a site for future school facilities. Neither exception applies to the Grafton School District’s Zaun Field land in the Town of Grafton.

So the land, along Cheyenne Road, should be sold to help support the cost of operating Grafton schools.

But, wait, there’s a better option: Lease the land to an electric utility for use as a solar energy field to provide a steady source of school district revenue that would exceed what could be expected from selling the land.

The Grafton School Board is poised to do just that, but has been encountering resistance. Take it as proof that NIMBY (not in my backyard) applies no matter how benign the power generating project.

We Energies would install a solar array on just 3.32 acres of the land and pay the school district $30,000 a year. Over the 30-year life of the lease, the district would receive $900,000. The assessed value of the land is $350,000.

The Town of Grafton Plan Commission refused to issue a conditional-use permit for the project when it was first proposed in April 2020 by SolarVest Now, a We Energies contractor. When the same plan was submitted by We Energies this year, the town commission tabled it.

The Plan Commission initially denied the permit on the recommendation of the town planner, who said the solar field “could have a significant effect on higher-end residential areas.”

One might have thought the planner was referring to a smoke-belching, coal-fired power plant, rather than a fairly small solar panel array that emits no pollution, creates no noise except for a mild humming that can be heard only when close by, blocks no views and attracts no traffic.

The School Board has heard other objections based on the fact that the solar field will occupy some of the land now available as playing fields for youth soccer and football. This is expected; youth sports programs get and deserve strong support.

The school district has been generous in allowing the Grafton Gladiators football team and the North Shore Soccer Club to use the land at no cost, but school district taxpayers do not have an obligation to subsidize private youth sports clubs when they are already supporting public school athletic programs.

School officials have said that if the clubs outgrow the remaining space at Zaun Field, arrangements could be made to use other school district property until it’s needed for school facilities.

The solar field is part of We Energies’ incremental approach to converting to renewable energy, featuring small solar arrays on public building rooftops and public land, but even that runs into opposition. A plan for a compact solar installation in Mee-Kwon County Park was rejected by county officials after a few owners of property outside of the park complained.

Solar generating facilities like the Onion River Solar Farm in the Town of Holland in Sheboygan County are another story. That enormous project has yet to produce a kilowatt of electricity, but it has generated an impressive amount of controversy.

No surprise there. The solar farm, developed by a New York company and now on its way to approval by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, will cover more than 1,000 acres of farmland with large solar panels and is viewed by many as an unsightly intrusion into a sylvan countryside. Much of the outrage was caused by town government officials who failed to properly inform citizens of the impending utility development. Leases were signed before many citizens were aware that the solar power plant was coming. Landowners who signed those leases, on the other hand, are quite pleased with the project, as they will be paid well above farmland value for the use of their acres.

The transition to renewable clean energy is happening and will accelerate; some of the resulting large-scale solar and wind farms are bound to be unwanted neighbors.

There is no reason for that to be the case with the Zaun Field project. It will not be a nuisance. It will provide a modest but welcome bit of school tax relief and, in its small way, advance the essential shift to renewable energy.

The School Board has voted unanimously to hold a meeting of school district residents on May 24 to consider the lease. If a majority of those citizens approve the lease, it should be taken as a signal to the Town of Grafton to drop its objections and issue a permit for this economically and environmentally sensible use of public land.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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