Wind on the Planning Commission agenda

The Planning Commission is holding a special meeting tomorrow night to do what the Council asked: review and recommend a response on the proposed wind turbine projects currently before Rice County (Council will approve and tinker if necessary on 12/7).  See my previous posts from 10/30 and 11/7).  As an update, 3 of 5 projects by the same developers (GroWind and Spring Creek Wind) have been approved by the Rice County Board of Commissioners.

The Planning Commission is reviewing 2 projects – 1 is from Carleton College (here’s a map) which the College courteously brought to the City Council  (no legal requirement that they do so) before the public hearing would be held by the Rice County PC on 12/9.  The proposed turbine is easy to understand and to like – Carleton received a gift for another wind turbine.  The College would like to site this turbine so that it could connect directly to the campus electrical grid to power their operations (read all about it in the PC packet) which supports their intent to create a “green” campus.  Northfield would be buffered by the Arboretum and the biggest impact would likely be visual – another spinning windmill to the east (which some people think is wonderful and some consider hideous – not sure how to deal with this dichotomy).

How different from the other project under development in Rice County south of Northfield (here’s that map) which the City Council only heard about through back channels when it was almost too late to comment.  Given the way the issue got to the Council, it’s easy to be suspicious of this one.  The facts that the same developers are proposing to build a total of 5 projects suggests a much more commercial mission than Carleton’s; “commercial” and “profitable” are certainly not negative words, but some have wondered if this is just a money-making deal with no concern for the impact.  Add concerned neighbors (see Dr Gary Carlson’s piece in the Strib) and a contentious Rice County Planning Commission hearing and it gets even harder to calmly and objectively consider what the impact on Northfield and its future development might be.

But, the Planning Commission will need to do just that at its meeting tomorrow evening. The PC has elected to take comments from Carleton College and Spring Creek Wind LLC representatives as well as input from the public (the meeting is not a public hearing but an open forum as a courtesy to the developers and interested others), so they run the risk of distracting themselves from the task at hand which is to recommend appropriate comments on the impact of the projects on Northfield and its land use plans.

Their task is not to recommend to Rice County how they should decide the issue.  Don’t like the County’s use of the conditional use permit process for land uses like this?  Unfortunately, not up for discussion.  The PC needs to balance the goals objectives of the Comprehensive Plan which call for energy conservation and sustainability throughout the community and the planned use of the land at the south edge of town for residential development then recommend comments which reflect what the anticipated impact to our existing and planned land uses.

Beyond the narrow task, I’d say it is also an opportunity for the Council, with help from the PC, to try to begin a broader conversation with Rice County (and our township partners) about planning at the city limits.  This might include working with the County about what land uses are appropriate on our borders and what sort of approval process would be most effective.  I have a dream about regional planning, so I’m hoping for some baby steps toward this dream.  It is also an opportunity for the PC to consider other pieces of the Comprehensive Plan which have not (yet) been addressed by the soon-to-be-adopted Land Development Code such as drafting ordinance language for conservation subdivisions and considering how to preserve a green buffer at the south edge of the city.

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