Town of Vienna voters looking to weigh in on a proposal to site a solar farm in the town won’t have a November referendum to do so, as no question on the issue will be on the ballot.
Citing insufficient information about the project and the possibility that an advisory referendum could lead to a loss of voter trust, the town board voted 4-0 on Aug. 17 in favor of leaving the question off of the ballot.
An alternative energy developer, Invenergy, is seeking to lease approximately 2,500 acres to place the solar panels. More than a year ago, representatives with Invenergy began meeting with Vienna landowners to negotiate leases, and several are already in the works. The project would generate approximately 300 megawatts of power, and leases would be for 25 years.
But many Town of Vienna residents say the plan would take prime farmland out of production. During a February meeting at the town hall to learn more about the project, some area dairy farmers who rely on the surrounding land to grow crops for feed said they do not want that land taken out of production.
Town Attorney John Mitby advised the board to include a referendum question, the wording of which was still being decided at the Aug. 17 meeting. The town would have been required to have that wording to the county by Aug. 24 for it to have appeared on the ballot. One iteration would be “Generally speaking, do you support or oppose using solar energy in order to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and traditional energy source?”
Another one under consideration would read, “Do you support or oppose having solar panels operating in the Town of Vienna?”
Mitby said the advisory referendum would give an answer to the town’s state representative and state senator, and that presidential elections see the greatest voter turnout. He added that the question could be posed to voters in the spring, as well.
Mitby said he is concerned about the project, which would take significant land off of the town’s tax rolls, and that a payment in lieu of taxes plan should be entered into.
“Now is your time,” Mitby said. “You’re going to have the best opportunity to get the best numbers from an election now than you’re going to have in the next four years,” Mitby said.
Dan Litchfield, director of Invenergy, attended the meeting via Zoom, and said the project will involve extensive public comment and process. Litchfield noted that payment in lieu of taxes agreements can be put in place to lift the burden from taxpayers.
The project is still in the early stages, Litchfield said.
“To present an application involves a lot of work — architectural, environmental engineering… and then we would have a really formal proposal to show where we want to put things,” Litchfield said.
Aiden O’Connor, also from Invenergy, said a referendum now is similar to going to a restaurant and having the waiter ask how you liked your meal when you haven’t been served yet.
Supervisor Karen Ingalls said advisory referendums can be misleading and can result in a loss of voter trust.
“It’s an informational thing. It doesn’t need to be on the ballot,” she said. Ingalls and others said surveys or other means could be used to gauge public opinion.
Ingalls made the motion to leave the referendum off of the November ballot, and the board voted unanimously to do so. Supervisor Ron Rupp abstained from the vote.
Vienna residents could possibly see the advisory referendum on the spring ballot. For that to happen, the town board would need to have the question to the county 70 days prior to the election.