Town of Vienna residents may see a referendum question on the ballot during the Nov. 3 Presidential Election asking whether they support or oppose a large scale solar project in the town.
Although the referendum would be advisory only, it could help inform local legislators and the Public Service Commission if the renewable energy company, Invenergy, files an application to build what it calls a large solar “farm” surrounding the North Madison Substation on Patton Road, just north of Hwy. V.
More than a year ago, representatives with Invenergy began meeting with Vienna landowners to negotiate leases. Invenergy is seeking to lease approximately 2,500 acres to place the solar panels. 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.
One vocal opponent at that meeting was Sherri Meinholz of Blue Star Dairy. Meinholz also said the dairy farm operates under a permit requiring it has an adequate land base to spread the manure. She pointed out that Town of Vienna farmland been classified as “farmland of statewide importance” by the Natural Resource Conservation Service within the USDA.
Meinholz and former town clerk Shawn Haney have met with Rep. Dianne Hesselbein and Sen. Jon Erpenbach to inform the state legislators about the proposal.
According to Erpenbach’s office, when a private company, rather than a public utility, proposes a large scale project to the Public Service Commission, less public input is required.
Haney said the hope is the state Assembly and Senate can introduce better criteria to consider when siting such large scale projects.
He noted that if ATC or MG&E were proposing the project, it would be subject to much more review.
Invenergy recently received approval for another project in Iowa County, the Badger Hollow Solar Farm.
“That’s what happened with Iowa County,” Haney said. “It got approved and just recently [Invenergy] sold a part of it to MG&E.”
Haney said when he was town clerk, officials there worked hard to have the town designated as an agriculture enterprise area.
“Personally, I think it’s a waste of good farmland,” Haney said about the solar project, adding that Invenergy is offering far more per acre for leases than the farmers currently receive.
Farmland that would be repurposed for energy production would be taken off of the tax rolls. But Wisconsin has a utility shared revenue formula based on the amount of energy produced on property that would allow the solar farm to become a revenue stream for town and the county.
Still, Haney noted that it would not generate revenue for the school district, so school taxes would be shifted to other property owners.
“This does not help the schools one iota. All that is gone. Who makes up the rest of it? All the rest of the town residents,” Haney said.
At their Aug. 3 meeting, the Town of Vienna Board of Supervisors discussed placing the referendum question on the Nov. 3 meeting, but tabled the discussion until their Aug. 17 meeting.
Town Clerk Kathy Clark said the board seemed ready to approve the referendum but wanted to work on the wording. The board must approve the referendum prior to Aug. 25, the date by which it must be to the county to place on the ballot.
Clark said the referendum would be advisory only; the town has no authority to reject the proposal.
“Once they apply with the PSC, it’s actually a state project and no longer a local project,” Clark said.
But a referendum could ensure the entire community is aware of the project, she added.