A town of Christiana farm family joined local property developers and a Chicago-based solar energy firm on Sept. 14 in pushing the Cambridge to back plans for new housing and retail business on 114 acres along U.S. Highway 12-18 at the village’s western gateway.
Duane and Tina Hinchley, developers Todd Schultz and Mike Herl of Madison-based Westgate Partners LLC and Dan Litchfield, director of renewable development for Chicago-based Invenergy, LLC all spoke in-person at the village board’s Sept. 14 meeting.
In July, Schultz and Herl proposed that the Hinchleys’ acreage, already under contract to be part of Invenergy’s Koshkonong Solar Energy 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 unattractive 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 were caveats, however.
In addition to requiring that the village cease all opposition to the utility-scale Koshkonong Solar Energy that Invenergy has proposed on up to 6,300 acres in the towns of Christiana and Deerfield, Schultz and Herl have said a deal hinges on the village offering tax incremental financing for their development.
That would be an abrupt about-face for the village.
In June, Cambridge filed as an intervenor, in opposition to the solar farm, as part of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s review of Invenergy’s request for a certificate of public convenience and necessity. That review is now underway, with a decision expected by early 2022.
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
Schultz and Herl, the Hinchleys and Invenergy have 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 tax incremental financing assistance.
The Hinchleys said they still have a viable contract with Invenergy to put solar panels on the 114 acres, now located in the town of Christiana.
“We are looking for a very clear path from you folks here at the village,” Duane Hinchley told the village board on Sept. 14.
Absent that, “I’ve got to make a decision soon,” Hinchley continued.
“I’ll pull my support on this,” and go back to allowing solar panels to fill the acreage, he said. “I have other financial considerations.”
“Please understand that if we cannot make this work, our land can still go to the solar project,” Tina Hinchley concurred. “We already have a contract with them and, to be sure, it would be a better option financially for us.”
Duane Hinchley added that he was “dismayed” to see the village paying attorneys to fight the solar farm “when I’m offering with my family this land to hopefully appease some of this, and to work it out together.”
Tina Hinchley said the acreage seems ideal for housing and highway businesses and would “help strengthen our tax base.”
“At the end of the day, there are four parties that have to come together… if you all still want the potential growth on the west side of town as opposed to solar panels up to your existing boundaries,” Schultz said.
“We really would like to work with the village,” Litchfield agreed. “It seems like this is a solution.”
The village board didn’t take any action on Sept. 14. They planned to further discuss the proposal in closed session that night.
“We are trying to move ahead with this,” Village President Mark McNally said.
Herl also said he and Schultz have reached out to home builders to gauge interest in the site and found the response “positive.”
Their plan has been to tap village TIF funding to lay infrastructure and to otherwise prepare the site for development, and to then sell lots to other developers who would proceed with constructing buildings for specific businesses.
“We have several users who are very interested in buying some land there,” he said.
Schultz told the village board during a meeting in July that it was gauging the village’s preliminary interest in offering TIF.
“We can only go so far with that process,” without first making such an inquiry, Schultz said then. He said then that it was too early to discuss a specific TIF dollar amount.
Schultz already owns about 30 acres just east of the proposed 114-acre development, abutting a Kwik Trip convenience store. He has said that land is envisioned to be the access point from the highway. Based on ongoing discussions with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Schultz said it’s likely that a stoplight will be required there if the development goes forward.
“What we need is a partner in the village, to join us in helping to get this thing done,” Herl told the village board on Sept. 14.
At this point, Invenergy, he and Schultz and the Hinchley are all on board, which Herl called a “win-win-win.”
“If we could add the village we’ll get a win-win-win-win,” Herl said.
In the days after the Sept. 14 meeting, Duane and Tina Hinchley, Aidan O’Connor of Invenergy, Schultz and Herl reiterated their thoughts in a follow-up letter to the village.
Dated Sept. 16, it urged the village to take “substantive action in response to the development proposal at hand.”
“The Hinchleys have expressed that they are willing to make this concession as a peace offering to the village,” said the letter, which reiterated that “the village’s withdrawal of its intervention in opposition to Koshkonong Solar is a requirement to sell the land.”
The letter went on to note that Invenergy has agreed to terminate its lease with the Hinchleys on the 114 acres “upon purchase and development of the property by Todd Schultz and Mike Herl and consummation of the village’s obligations.”
It also noted that Schultz and Herl, and the Hinchleys, have been waiting since July for a response from the village to the proposed highway development.
“Over two months have passed since this proposal was presented to the village with no material action or indication from the village to advance this opportunity,” the letter said. “The village’s inaction has had a significant, adverse impact on the ability for this proposed development to proceed.”
Invenergy’s “attempts to contact village leadership to advance this solution have also gone unreturned,” the letter continued. “If the village’s stated desire for growth is real (as opposed to manufactured for the purpose of opposing the solar project), this development presents an ideal way for the village to fill that desire and grow.”