EUREKA — While Georgia-based SolAmerica Energy won a slam-dunk court decision to move its solar farm proposal forward, it must now, like all statewide applicants, hope for a bolt of luck to complete the deal.
Woodford County Circuit Judge Charles Feeney in January awarded SolAmerica a special use permit to allow it to construct a 2-megawatt solar farm on property that abuts Lakeview Acres, a residential subdivision on the outskirts of Eureka. The proposal was opposed by a large number of residents in the subdivision, and the city of Eureka. It was batted back and forth for months last year between the County Zoning Commission and the County Board.
The County Board ultimately rejected the zoning board's recommendation to approve the permit, effectively delivering the decision to the 11th Judicial Circuit judge, who ruled in favor of SolAmerica on Jan. 17.
In a summary judgment, Feeney awarded the special use permit before listening to any testimony.
"Woodford County's denial of the subject Special Use Permit was arbitrary, unreasonable, bears no substantial relation to the public health, safety and welfare, and violated SolAmerica Energy, LLC's rights to both substantive and procedural due process. Sol America Energy, LLC is granted a special use permit to operate a solar energy system on the subject property."
SolAmerica spokesman John Buffington praised the decision.
"SolAmerica is excited about the recent judgment and feels strongly that this is the right call," Buffington said. "We'd prefer not to have to take legal action, but in this case we met the county's development code, we were twice approved by the zoning board and received an entirely supportive review by a tri-county commission whose report on our project was requested by the county. These factors suggest that a very high bar had been achieved, and we believe the judgment reflects that."
The state passed legislation in 2016 that opened the door for applications for sustainable energy development. The goal of the legislation is for the generation of 25 percent sustainable energy in Illinois by 2025. The law was extremely successful.
"The state ended up with many more applicants (for small community solar energy generating systems than there were available credits," said Peter Gray, a spokesman for the Illinois Solar Energy Association. "So the state developed a plan to award applicants."
The plan is to select applicants by lottery. The lottery is expected to be held next month.
So, after an extended permitting process that ended up in front of a Woodford County judge, SolAmerica must win a lottery to build its solar farm.
"It is not at all clear that we will now get to realize the project. Given the high level of interest in state incentives supporting community solar projects, a lottery will be held. We expect to face challenging odds," Buffington said. "If we do have the privilege of pursuing this project, as we've said all along, we intend to be a good neighbor and will strive to be a welcome member of the community."
The process has been frustrating for Eureka Mayor Scott Zimmer, who has opposed the project from the beginning. It has put him in the conflicted position of supporting the concept of solar energy while hoping that SolAlmerica doesn't win the lottery.
"We haven't gotten a solid answer, but we believe that even if (SolAmerica) is picked in the lottery, there will still be an opportunity to challenge the proposal. I hope that's the case," Zimmer said Friday. "As we've said all along, we just don't believe the (Eureka) site is the right place for this."
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.