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Cambridge

Cambridge Village Board, village residents respond to solar farm land deal

About two dozen village residents filled an in-person Cambridge Village Board meeting on Sept. 28 to speak out against the proposal

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  • 7 min to read

The Cambridge Village Board and some village residents are pushing back on the proposed development of farmland along U.S. Highway 12-18, that would only only move forward if the village withdraws its opposition to a massive solar farm just to its west.

The deal would also hinge on the village offering tax incremental financing for the proposed development of highway businesses and housing on 114 acres south of the highway.

About two dozen village residents filled an in-person Cambridge Village Board meeting on Sept. 28 to speak out against the proposal.

The meeting came four days after the village, on Sept. 24, addressed a letter to town of Christiana landowners Duane and Tina Hinchley, developers Todd Schultz and Mike Herl and Aidan O’Connor of Chicago-based Invenergy, LLC, laying out Cambridge’s concerns and offering an alternative approach.

Prior to Sept. 28, the letter had only been discussed in closed-door meetings involving village officials and attorneys. The village board on Sept. 28 authorized Village Administrator Lisa Moen to make it public.

Invenergy is seeking to build its 300 megawatt Koshkonong Solar Energy Center in the towns of Deerfield and Christiana, with a 6,300 total project area. Construction is envisioned to start in 2022.

On April 15 it filed an application with the Public Service Commission for a certificate of public convenience and necessity, kicking off a state review process expected to last 6-12 months.

Subsequently, in a joint April 30 filing with the Public Service Commission, Wisconsin Electric Power Company (WEPCO), Wisconsin Public Service Corporation (WPSC) and Madison Gas and Electric Company (MGE) said they’d like to buy the proposed Koshkonong Solar Energy Center from Invenergy.

The three utilities said they’d like to acquire the proposed solar farm and construct what they envision would be a 300-megawatt solar project and 165 megawatt battery storage facility, for a total capacity of 465 megawatts. Wisconsin Electric Power Company would have a 75 percent ownership stake, Wisconsin Public Service Corporation 15 percent and Madison Gas and Electric Company 10 percent.

In June, Cambridge filed as an intervenor, in opposition to the solar farm, as part of the Public Service Commission’s review.

Cambridge has also created a subcommittee to fight the solar proposal and has earmarked up to $60,000 to hire attorneys to assist in that. A main point of its opposition has been that tentative project maps show the solar farm closely abutting U.S. Highway 12-18, a key future growth area for Cambridge and a western gateway from Madison.

In July, Schultz and Herl proposed that the Hinchleys’ 114 acres along the highway, already under contract with Invenergy to be part of the solar farm, be sold to them instead and annexed into Cambridge and developed for retail, homes and apartments stretching from the highway southward toward Cambridge Elementary School.

Schultz and Herl said the village would no longer have to worry about solar panels lining the highway in the key gateway area that includes the Cambridge Winery, Dancing Goat Distillery and a high-end neighborhood, The Vineyards at Cambridge.

There was more, however. In addition to requiring that the village cease all opposition to Koshkonong Solar, Schultz and Herl said a deal hinged on the village offering tax incremental financing for their development.

Schultz and Herl, the Hinchleys and Invenergy also asked that the Cambridge Village Board issue a new letter of support for the solar project, and asked that it publicly declare its support for developing the Hinchleys’ 114 acres with TIF assistance.

In its Sept. 24 letter, the Cambridge Village Board said it was “very supportive of seeing development occur on the Hinchey’s land.”

“The issue before the village is not, however, simply a matter of whether the village supports Tom and Mike’s development plans. Rather, the question is whether the village is proposed to foreclose on the possibility of any other village growth on its western border in exchange for Koshkonong’s release of the Hinchley property from its solar project,” the letter said, going on to call the plans for the Hinchley property “particularly unreasonable considering that it is clear the Hinchley land is not necessary for Koshkonong’s project.”

“What Koshkonong proposes is not a win-win-win-win situation. It is a proposal that holds a gun to the head of the village of Cambridge forcing it to accept a frozen western border and forgo any possibility of expansion for decades to come,” the letter said.

The village went on to propose what it called an “amicable resolution” that would involve removing land zoned for residential and mixed use development, between U.S. 12-18 and County Road PQ, from the solar project; relocating a proposed battery storage area; and widening the setbacks along the highway.

The village also asked that some other concerns be addressed, including potential financial harm to the Cambridge schools.

At the Sept. 28 meeting, Cambridge resident Blake Sollenberger called the proposed land deal “insulting.”

“Everyone who is here is here because they love this town and when you love something you don’t threaten it, you don’t punish it, you fight for it,” Sollenberger said. “Do we see Invenergy fighting for Cambridge? No. So don’t give an inch. Don’t let them take advantage of Cambridge.”

Jamie Downing said she’s trying to sell her home on the edge of the village and is concerned that word of the proposed solar farm is turning off potential buyers.

“As soon as people hear about this project they want nothing to do with Cambridge,” she said. “They have expressed concern about the scale (of the solar project), environmental impacts, esthetics.”

If the solar farm goes through “I think Cambridge is not going to be the place that people are looking to relocate to. I think our town is probably going to lose big time in people that have resources and things to offer this community, who are no longer interested in living here.”

Also speaking at the Sept. 28 village board meeting, Dan Litchfield, a lead developer with Invenergy, said he appreciated the community input, adding that “I think it’s important that we get our energy from cleaner sources, and local sources, that create economic development in rural areas.”

He said the letter from the village was “clearly not going to resolve anything right away but I do appreciate the discussion. We’ve had a great deal of back and forth on this project. It’s obviously a complicated thing, with a lot of considerations.”

Christiana response

Christiana Town Chairman Mark Cook has also recently responded to the proposed land deal.

In an undated letter to the Cambridge Village Board, obtained by the Cambridge News & Deerfield Independent, Cook said the proposal involving the Hinchleys' 114 acres "feels like it’s a choreographed, strategic neutralization of opposition.  This is political theater that can be persuasive, and you need to rise-up and break the overriding cadence of aggressiveness and the coercing you must feel."

"I’m asking you to not be duped with promises of what might be and at the same time tossing out a long history of cooperation between the town and village.  We have never needed your support more than we do now.  I am not offering you anything you don’t already have. We are your friends and neighbors. Invenergy is not," Cook continued. 

The full text of Cook's letter:

"I have been thinking about the letter you received from Invenergy and others.  This solar process feels like it’s a choreographed, strategic neutralization of opposition.  This is political theater that can be persuasive, and you need to rise-up and break the overriding cadence of aggressiveness and the coercing you must feel.  Individual’s rights against those of the community are always difficult to deal with.

Solar development is managed democracy and manufactured consensus. Opposing solar as presented will be met with pugnaciousness, enticement, and intimidation. This is not the will of the people.  I’m asking you to not be duped with promises of what might be and at the same time tossing out a long history of cooperation between the Town and Village.  We have never needed your support more than we do now.  I am not offering you anything you don’t already have. We are your friends and neighbors. Invenergy is not.

Our duty in the Township is simple. The Town Board is to preserve the Town of Christiana as a rural agricultural township. For this reason, the entire town has been designated as an Agricultural Preservation Area. The other truth is that the Village of Cambridge is surrounded by four Towns which also boast significant attractions including natural resources and retail amenities. Rockdale, Oakland, Christiana, and London together are home to a significant amount of area residents, retail, and natural amenity destinations. Natural amenities include Lake Ripley, Ripley Park, Lake Ripley Country Club and Cam‐Rock Park. This regional connectivity, coupled with quality schools and recreation amenities, has made Cambridge an attractive residential destination, with steady increases in population over the past several decades. You need us more than you need Invenergy. Take note that the utility companies that will one day own the solar power plant do not serve a single person in our area. Why is that?

Our schools get nothing. If the utility companies paid a fair tax on this solar plant, your fund balance would be much better for it. That is the real fight. That is the Towns battle.  

The primary goals of the Town of Christiana Land Use Plan are to preserve productive farmlands, the rural lifestyle and agricultural business character of the Town, and to protect farm operations from conflict with incompatible land uses.

We have a commitment to the Village that non-farm commercial uses are discouraged in the town, except in the Highway 12/18 corridor within 1.5 miles of the Village of Cambridge western boundary. Zoning changes or conditional use permits to accommodate existing, established commercial uses in the town, or for limited, family-owned businesses that serve town residents has long been our goal.  This corridor is for you. Don’t be short sighted.

We are not anti-solar. We are however interested in fairness and protecting our rural character. The town incorporates general community design guidelines. When reviewing development proposals, the town and property owners will consider the following objectives of the town: minimize disturbance of productive agricultural land, minimize disturbance of sensitive natural areas, preserve scenic views in the town. 

We need to ask that the rule makers  develop regulations governing information to be included in solar applications; land leasing, purchasing, and promotional practices; notice requirements for local governments and non-participants in project area; limits to percentages and/or acreages that can be removed from agricultural production; setbacks from roads, homes, public buildings and other receptors; permissible and prohibited glare of the panels; collector system locations and specifications; drainage and run off and water collection systems; fencing and vegetation surrounding a project or pieces of the project; construction best practices and model development agreements; unintended economic consequences of removal of land from production, such as loss of revenue for agricultural support industries including equipment sales and repair, planting, spraying and harvesting services; potential for population decrease if farms are no longer farming and residents move; decommissioning plan and financial assurance to be in place prior to construction; and other issues that become apparent in the local rulemaking process. None of what we need can be achieved without you at our side.

We need you with us during this process. Selling out to the offer presented is turning your back on the Township.  Stick with us please. We can work together with the state and utilities to better achieve a project we can be proud of. Taking of assets or favor given or promised to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust is distasteful. You are in a position of trust. I trust you to do the right thing."

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