The Carver County Board has changed its mind about a controversial solar energy project, voting 3-2 to approve the necessary permit after unanimously declaring that they intended to deny the same permit in September.

The threat of a lawsuit changed things, commissioners and county staff said at a Nov. 22 meeting, but that was little consolation to more than 50 residents who have crowded several contentious County Board meetings to oppose the project.

“The thinking was if there was ever any litigation … [the judge] could rule that they met the criteria,” said Commissioner Randy Maluchnik, referring to the county’s zoning code criteria.

Landowner Bruce Lenzen wants to build a 28-acre solar array on his Watertown Township property, next to state Hwy 7. The proposal is the joint effort of Florida-based NextEra Energy and Edina’s TruNorth Solar.

“I’m just happy it passed,” Lenzen said, adding that he had no idea what changed the commissioners’ minds.

Neighbors presented a list of objections, including aesthetics, the glare the panels might create for drivers, construction traffic and the belief that solar panels don’t belong on fertile farmland.

Mikal Hendrickson said he’s already lost one boarding customer at his stable because of fears about stray voltage.

Though the board was expected to deny the permit Sept. 20, board members instead went into two closed sessions to discuss a threatened lawsuit if they rejected the permit.

Attorneys advised the board that the project was close to meeting the zoning criteria, Maluchnik said. He said the board was advised that they might lose a lawsuit.

Modifications were made to the plans to appease neighbors, Maluchnik said, including adding screening and locating solar panels away from Hendrickson’s stable.

An escrow account will be created to reassure neighbors that there will be enough money to remove the solar panels should that be required when the permit expires in 35 years.

Todd Guerrero, NextEra’s attorney, said there was no formal threat of a lawsuit from his client.

But several board members said the presence of a court reporter at public meetings convinced them a lawsuit could happen.

Kathie Anderson wasn’t satisfied with their reasoning.

“Three of you flip your votes and you don’t give any reason why?” Anderson said.

Frank Long, who opposed the permit, said that board members might have been replaced if they had approved the permit before the Nov. 8 election.