Weld County approves updated regulations for solar farms

The Weld County Commissioners unanimously approved late this past month changes to the county code regarding solar energy facilities.

The changes, to Chapter 23 in the county code, came after months of discussion and controversy over timing at the beginning of the process.

According to documents from the county planning department, the new regulations redefine solar facilities by physical project size as opposed to the amount of energy produced, impacting the permitting and approval process. This allows county staff to handle land use concerns more specifically.

“I think what we were concerned about originally was just that all solar projects were being kind of lumped together,” said Dan Waldvogle, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union director of external affairs. “There was some credible fear, I think, that putting in solar facilities was going to be almost impossible. The difference now is that there are clear guidelines for the larger projects and protections to guarantee that they’re going to be good projects for the community. For the small ones, there’s just a lot more flexibility so folks can have a small project.”

‘A win for everybody’

The new regulations classify solar facilities by three primary sizes and their location within unincorporated Weld County.

Mike Kruger, president and CEO of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, said the regulations provided a good compromise between the industry, Weld County leaders and landowners.

“The pace of change within the state and the demand for solar is such that the Board of County Commissioners, I think, realized that it’s not a one-off (project),” Kruger said, noting that solar farms were previously seen as an exception to the rules instead of needing their own. “These new regulations set a very clear standard for projects, set a very clear responsibility for projects.”

These rules help promote economic development through solar, he said, without changing the character of the county.

First, there are small solar farms that are less than 5 acres. These may be in the near/urban area or the agriculture/rural area, per a land use map from the county. These must undergo the zoning permit process, and approval is subject to the discretion of Weld County Planning Services. Only one solar facility may be present per 35 acres; no facilities may be placed adjacent to one another.

They must be consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan and the area in which they are located. Solar facilities also must be compatible with expected future development in the area.

Developers must show how they intend to protect prime farmland, if the project will be located in the agricultural zone. Additionally, the plan must detail how neighbors and the county at large will be protected.

The Planning Department may approve these small projects without a public hearing if the application criteria are met and the project has not received opposition from 30% of surrounding property owners within a 500-foot radius.

Mid-sized projects are broken into two subcategories. These are defined as solar facilities between 5 acres and 160 acres in the near/urban area, or they are facilities in the ag/rural zone between 5 acres and 320 acres.

These must undergo the use-by-special-review process. According to county code section 23-2-200, uses by special review are those that are considered “more intense or to have a potentially greater impact” than uses that are allowed by right in a zone.

Projects must receive additional consideration by the developer, the planning department and the county commissioners prior to approval, to ensure they are compatible with existing and planned developments in the area.

Developers must meet with the planning department prior to submitting a special review application, to discuss any potential changes or considerations. Once approved by the planning department, proposals will go before the planning commission, which will make a recommendation to the county commissioners for a final decision.

These projects may not “unreasonably interfere” with historic sites or local wildlife.

Lastly, the county created the designation of a 1041 solar energy facility. These are more than 160 acres if they are in the near/urban area or more than 320 acres in the ag/rural area. These are only allowed by permit and must receive approval from the planning department, planning commission and county commissioners.

Developers are encouraged to meet with the planning department and discuss the project. This isn’t an official meeting, and parties are not bound by the discussion, but it provides an opportunity to gather basic information, address possible concerns or share any other considerations.

Prior to submitting the application for the project, developers must meet again with planning services in a pre-application conference to review the proposal. Topics will focus on more details, including but not limited to equipment placement, notable features, site accessibility, impact on surrounding areas, applicable regulations and zone compliance.

Meetings must take place within 14 days prior to submitting the request.

The planning commission will recommend approval or denial to the county commissioners. A public hearing must take place before a final decision is made.

Projects of this size are subject to more stringent design specifications. There is a height limitation of 25 feet, measured from the highest grade of the solar panel to the highest point of panel rotation. These must be designed to prevent glare from being directed to neighboring properties and roadways.

These regulations do not apply to roof- or ground-mounted equipment on “permitted principal and accessory buildings if they are designed to supply power to the principal use or usage on site,” according to Article VI of Chapter 21, which is yet to be codified.

All projects, regardless of size, must meet a variety of guidelines for sound, safety, design, setback and utilities. Plans must consider stormwater management, dust mitigation and land upkeep. Fencing and safety signage is required.

Solar projects must meet the setback requirements of the zone in which they are placed, according to documents from the planning department. They are also required to be at least 500 feet from existing residential buildings and plots planned for development. Residential setback requirements may be reduced if screening is provided through opaque fencing, landscaping, a waiver is submitted or neighboring residents agree to a reduced setback. Any landscaping or fencing changes must be submitted to the county for approval.

Additionally, proposals must include a decommissioning/reclamation plan to remove all equipment from the land, starting 12 months after power production has permanently ceased.

“When we started these conversations, I think there was a bit of distrust among all the parties about how this was going to go,” Kruger said. “I want to express appreciation of the solar and storage industry to the board of county commissioners for them (taking time to) understand the industry, the needs of the industry better and to work with us on a compromise in regulations that I think is a win for everybody — even if everybody didn’t get exactly what they wanted.”

‘An all-of-the-above energy county’

This issue was first brought up in the fall — to address concerns about solar developers circumventing subdivision regulations — but a number of issues arose.

Some initial suggestions included changing the appropriate amount of land on a parcel of property that could be used for solar, only allowing solar farms at certain locations in the county, requiring facilities to be placed on range land, requiring rezoning of land if used for solar or imposing specific location requirements that would apply to most solar facilities.

Individual landowners who want to lease their land for solar development and energy companies, however, said these requirements would make development difficult and reduce investment into the county. Farmers said leasing their land is a way to continue making a living and criticized the commissioners for trying to put regulations on solar that don’t exist for oil and gas.

Barbara Kirkmeyer, now a state senator, pushed for completed changes by the end of 2020. Most stakeholders present at a stakeholder meeting in December emphasized the need for additional time due to the holidays and rising COVID-19 cases. Things could be amended, but the county should be diligent, they said.

“After that evening in December where we heard quite a bit of opposition about what we were doing, I think it shows what we can do. We can pump the brakes, we can slow down the process and open our ears,” Commissioner Scott James said when the changes passed. “We can work with folks to give landowners in Weld County an opportunity, but work to continue to protect residents from the impacts of this particular development.

“I could not be more thrilled when you take a look at where we began to where we are finishing now. I think it is testimony to the process and truly indicates that Weld County respects the rights of property owners to develop and continue to live their lives as they would like, (and) show the rest of the state and nation that Weld is an all-of-the-above energy county.”

The commissioners agreed to a 60-day continuance for more input. Another extension was granted in February with the final verbiage approved at the end of April.

Since then, Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) in partnership with 174 Power Global announced the creation of a solar farm on 1,000-1,400 acres in north Weld. PRPA is the wholesale company for cities such as Loveland, Fort Collins and Estes Park.

Steve Roalstad, communications and marketing manager at PRPA, said the companies began the permitting process last week and have not faced any obstacles due to the review of the regulations. The project must go through multiple phases of approval and public input before work begins.

PRPA estimates 320 full-time employees will work throughout the construction with up to 450 during peak construction, which is set to last 12-14 months. Once complete, the project will provide eight to 10 permanent positions. Additionally, the project is set to provide tax revenues, payment to individual landowners and local revenues through the construction process to help boost the county economy.

“I think we kind of saw, originally, it felt like the commission was trying to come to a solution for a problem that really didn’t exist,” Waldvogle said. “Now, it seems like they’ve come to more common sense policy — that’s what we’re most happy with.”