In a unanimous vote Thursday, the Yellowstone County Board of Adjustment overturned a planning decision to issue a zoning compliance permit to develop what would be Montana’s largest solar farm on Alkali Creek Road northwest of Billings.
The decision does not necessarily kill the project, proposed by Sandy, Utah-based MT Sun LLC. Because most of the proposed project is on state trust land leased by MT Sun, the state has at least three options, according to Department of Natural Resources and Conservation area planner Jeff Bollman:
- It could appeal the Board of Adjustment’s decision in district court.
- It could go through a special review process with county planners to determine whether the solar farm is an allowed use.
- It could use the land contrary to local zoning requirements.
Bollman, who was present at the hearing along with more than 20 neighbors opposed to the proposed solar farm, at 3916 Alkali Creek Road, said it’s not his call which route the state might pursue. The DNRC has hired a firm to develop a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed development, a process that will include a 30-day public comment period.
Part of that environmental review, he said, will be to look at the reclamation plan that will come about once the lease ends.
The state land board — Montana’s top five elected officials — has already approved the lease. “We are looking to get the highest and best use” out of the 369 acres of zoned property included in the 460-acre project, he told the county board.
Karen Kosiarek, who owns a 16-acre lot adjacent to the proposed solar farm, said she and her husband, Greg, want to build “our dream home” on their property. But the solar farm proposal has “put our building plan on hold.”
“We fell in love” with the Lone Eagle subdivision, she told the board. “It has beautiful views and a nice residential feel to it.”
Neighbors said they wanted to tell the board how they felt about the proposal. But board chairwoman Carlotta Hecker said the board would take testimony only on whether planners had erred approving the zoning compliance permit.
By the end of the 2-hour, 15-minute hearing, the five-member board determined planners had indeed erred.
“I can’t help but conclude that the section of the (zoning) code was erroneously applied to this particular use,” said Troy Boucher, a board member. “In my view, this decision should be overturned, or partially overturned,” to allow for a proposed electrical station and maintenance shop but not the acres of solar panels, which board members said constituted an electrical generating facility.
“The energy isn’t being sold to me by MT Sun,” Hecker said, but rather to a utility such as NorthWestern Energy. “I believe we should reverse the decision.”
“A station appears to be an allowed use,” said Blaine Poppler, another board member. “I’m having a hard time calling this (proposal) a station.”
Board Member Robert Bailey said it was “alarming to me that not all of this information was provided in our packet.”
His colleague, Bruce Reierson, said the board is “in the position of interpreting (planners') interpretation, and we don’t have all the information that they had. How do we know if they made the right decision? This is different than what we normally deal with.”
In her report to the board, Monica Plecker, Planning Division manager, said that planners determined that the project complies with the Agricultural Open zoning designation of the land. Even if it doesn’t comply, she wrote, the state can ignore the county’s zoning regulations “as state statute allows public lands to be used for uses contrary to zoning.”
In a letter to the board, Andy Adamek, a Helena attorney representing Kosiarek, said that in approving the zoning compliance permit, planners “surreptitiously skipped the safeguards of special review.” They also “gave a green light to a sprawling industrial power generation facility that would remove hundreds of acres of agricultural land from grazing or cultivated production, prevent agricultural pursuits and obliterate practical open space considerations.”
“All we are asking,” Adamek told the board, “is for a more robust review, consistent with your own zoning codes.”