Carver County commissioners last week approved a solar power project over the objections of scores of residents while taking steps to short-circuit a similar but larger project, leaving residents around both projects frustrated and suspicious of the decisions.

Each project would place thousands of rectangular black solar panels amid farms and a smattering of houses, a prospect many say would detract from the bucolic landscape.

The commissioners voted Sept. 6 to approve a proposal for a 15-acre community solar “garden,” despite objections that solar energy is economically inefficient. At the same hearing, the board — with limited public discussion — unanimously recommended denial of a 28-acre solar project and directed staff to prepare an order for a final vote Tuesday.

Critics gripe that the board is seeking to block the project to appease an influential Republican opponent who doesn’t want to see it built near his home. The landowner acknowledges some pull with the board.

“There’s no under-the-table kind of deals,” said Frank Long, a former chairman of the Carver County Republicans. “Now, there may be relationships with people who know people who would like to have things done, but that’s just normal.”

Several commissioners said the two projects weren’t as comparable as they appear.

“You really have to look at each project and have it stand on its own,” said Commissioner Randy Maluchnik, who supported the first project but not the second.

Major utility companies have until 2020 to meet a state mandate that they generate at least 1.5 percent of their energy from the sun.

In the last year, Carver County approved six solar generating permits and denied two. Interest in solar energy projects also is growing in Chisago, Stearns and Wright counties, though the latter placed a six-month moratorium on them in May after residents complained.

A sunny outlook?

About 70 people attended the Carver County Board meeting in September. Most opposed plans by Minneapolis-based GreenMark to develop a 3-megawatt, $10 million solar project in Waconia Township. GreenMark will lease its site for 25 years from a local landowner. Even so, opponents said it shouldn’t be allowed on prime agricultural land or was incompatible with the landscape. One farmer worried about the effect of stray voltage on cattle.

“No matter what site it is in Carver County, it’s all prime agricultural land,” said Mark Wickenhauser, who lives two miles away.

Cal Haasken, a Chaska Realtor, said research shows that being adjacent to a solar garden diminishes property values.

Several residents said they didn’t believe solar energy was economical in a state that’s sunny less than a third of the time, and didn’t like that the government was helping to foot the bill.

Workman said he felt for them but ultimately voted to approve it along with commissioners Maluchnik and Gayle Degler.

A different outcome

The board then quashed a proposal for a 5-megawatt solar generator on Hwy. 7 in Watertown Township. The proposal was a joint effort of Florida-based NextEra Energy — the country’s largest solar energy producer — and Edina’s TruNorth Solar.

“The board offered no questions regarding the project that weren’t addressed,” said Marty Morud, president of TruNorth Solar. “To simply deny the application without discussion seems unusual at best, and extremely unfair.”

The nonprofit Clean Energy Economy Minnesota attributed the County Board’s vote to “politics” without elaborating. Gregg Mast, its executive director, wouldn’t say more.

Others suggested the decision was made out of deference to Long. Though the County Board is officially nonpartisan, several commissioners are Republicans in a conservative county.

Long said in an interview that he didn’t want to live near a solar garden for aesthetic reasons. He also contends that solar energy is inefficient and opposes its public subsidies. Long said he had Workman over to his house for a meeting. He recalled Workman saying: “Give me a reason to vote against [the project].”

Workman said the project was too big, and it was unclear how the solar panels would be screened from neighbors and passing motorists.

Maluchnik said politics played no role in his vote against the project.

“I felt that the board members had legitimate concerns about the size and whether it fit into the community,” he said.