Town residents protest Charter’s solar farm plan

Steel firm’s proposal raises concerns about environment, property values that prompt commission to delay vote
Ozaukee Press staff

It was standing room only at Tuesday’s Town of Saukville Plan Commission meeting as a group of roughly 30 people came to oppose plans by Charter Steel to build a 60-acre solar farm on property it owns adjacent to its manufacturing plant.

Their concerns spanned the gamut, from reduced property values and a need for screening to potential issues with toxic chemicals used to make the solar panels to noise.

“I have a lot of concerns,” Ken Gensrick of 1745 Center Rd. said, including the fact the town doesn’t have an ordinance regarding solar facilities.

“I don’t know how you can vote yes on something the town hasn’t discussed,” he said.

“What is the point? I don’t get it,” Kathryn Beilfuss, 4883 Cold Springs Rd., said, adding that solar panels can’t be recycled and contain toxic chemicals that she said could affect the area. “In the end, it will impact the environment and the neighborhood.

“Charter already has a big footprint. To expand it in this way I find wrong.”

“I didn’t move out here to look at all this ugliness,” added Nancy Cain of Highway O. “I’m just so opposed to this.”

Jennifer Callies of Center Road said Charter hasn’t always been responsive to its neighbors.

“I don’t find they’ve been the best neighbor to me,” she said. “To add this piled on top really rubs me bad.

“Why are we doing this? Why now?”

Several residents questioned the potential impact of the chemicals used in the panels, the potential for them to leak into the groundwater, to be released into the air if there’s a fire or damage to the panels and

other possible issues.

The potential for the  properties  closest to the solar field to lose more than 40% of their value was also a concern for a number of the residents.

Town officials had a number of questions as well, and in the end the commission tabled action.

Town Chairman Kevin Kimmes made a motion that was unanimously adopted to delay action until October in order for officials to get answers to the many questions they and residents have, to determine the cost of screening the facility and to get information from Saukville Fire Chief Bill Rice on how any fire at the solar farm would be handled.

He urged residents to submit their questions and concerns to the town by early next week so they can be submitted to Charter, adding he wants written answers so there will be documentation of the company’s promises and statements.

If they don’t have all the information in time for the October meeting, Kimmes said, the matter could be delayed until November.

Supr. Mike Denzien agreed with Kimmes, saying, “Let’s go right down the list and take time to study up on them (the concerns) ... find out what it’s like to live next to a solar field.

“This is going to be the one chance we get to impose any conditions. I think we owe that to our neighbors.”

Commission member Don Hamm agreed, saying, “I really feel for a lot of the neighbors. I think we just need to slow down.”

The $25 million solar project would be built on land adjacent to Charter’s manufacturing plant and generate 15 megawatts of power, roughly 8% of the power Charter uses, Rob Thompson, the company’s director of environmental, said.

The solar farm would be created on two parcels, one that’s 35 acres and the other that’s 30 acres, and built by SolAmerica Energy for Charter, which would own and operate it, he said.

Thompson said construction is expected to take 24 weeks, adding Charter would like to have the solar field operational by next summer.

There aren’t any plans to expand the solar field in the future, he said.

“It would not be something we can manage,” he said.

Thompson said the project was spurred by Charter’s customers, who want the company to reduce its carbon footprint.

The solar panels, which would be 6-by-3 feet, would be mounted about 3 feet off the ground and extend 10 feet off the ground, according to a report by Town Planner Josh Miller.

The panels, Thompson said, will be the highest grade that’s made and have a guaranteed life of 25 years.

“We wouldn’t be putting the capital into it if we didn’t have a guarantee about that,” he said.

He said the panels have similar metals, adhesives and materials as cell phones. While they are treated as waste after their usable life today, he said, it’s likely there will be a “very robust market” to recycle them by the time the panels reach the end of their life.

And, Thompson said, the materials in the panels don’t automatically leach chemicals if they’re damaged.

“It’s not something you poke a hole in it and chemicals leak out,” he said.

Town Attorney Sara McCarthy told the crowd the town is limited in what it can do about the proposed solar farm.

Much of the regulatory power is vested in the Public Service Commission, she said, not municipalities. Municipalities can’t prohibit solar fields, she said, nor can they impose restrictions that would significantly add to the project cost or reduce efficiency.

The only thing the town has power over, McCarthy said, are things that affect public health and safety.

Officials questioned the proposed 7-foot-high fence, saying they prefer a taller structure to help shield neighbors from the farm, and suggested that Charter look at ways to create a landscaped buffer as well.

Miller noted in his report that the company said it is trying to reach out to neighboring property owners to get their opinions on the most suitable way to screen the solar fields.

“If you wanted to be a good neighbor, I’m buying pine trees and asking them where they want them planted,” Kimmes said, noting trees will not only soften the neighbor’s view but also any glare from the panels.

Even though they are made with anti-glare materials, he said, “It may reduce it but it doesn’t eliminate it.”

Commission member Tom Ravn also said he wants to ensure the solar farm is as quiet as possible, saying the proposed 60 decibel level is too noisy. He recommended 48 decibels.

“Forty-eight is a whisper,” he said. “That’s what I would like to see.”




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