Solar power is coming to Fergus Falls.

The Committee of the Whole voted to forward recommendations by the city engineer, Brian Yavarow Tuesday that tie into a plan by Otter Tail Power to build a 49.9-megawatt solar farm in the southeast portion of the city.

Yavarow first recommended the committee approve and authorize city staff to submit a Hoot Lake Solar Project environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board Monitor.

Yavarow’s second recommendation was to set Tuesday, Dec. 8, as the date for an EAW public hearing. The meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m.

The farm will harvest power from an energy source that does not come from the Earth. It will come from a star 92 million miles away. At the present time the Hoot Lake power plant is generating power with lignite coal. The plant is scheduled for retirement in 2021.

As a public utility, Otter Tail Power is required by the state to provide 1.5% of its retail load from solar power. The state has a solar energy goal of 10% by 2030.

Otter Tail Power wants to construct approximately 150,000 solar panels on approximately 355 acres within a 450 acres site outside city limits. According to an Otter Tail Power representative at the meeting, the reason for choosing the site where the Hoot Lake plant is located for the solar farm is based on substation and transmission lines that are already in place near the plant.

While a portion of the 450-acre site is located within Fergus Falls, Otter Tail Power plans to petition the city to annex adjoining unincorporated portions of Otter Tail County. The 450 acres will be bordered on the north by the Otter Tail River and on the south by State Highway 210.

Otter Tail Power’s expected petition to the city is based on a requirement by the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act that state agencies and local responsible government units like the city of Fergus Falls consider the impact of governmental actions on the environment.

Yavarow pointed out in his recommendation that Otter Tail Power is responsible for preparing the EAW and for publication fees. General city staff time has been utilized for review and coordination.

Committee members brought up a variety of questions about the solar farm project — including storm water requirements during construction, infringement on existing residences outside the boundaries of the 450-acre site, noise, aesthetics, possible expansion of the project and the impact on area wildlife.

Otter Tail Power also provided an update on the street lighting project.

Fergus Falls Public Works Director Len Taylor prefaced the update by telling committee members that until now most of the project has been in the outer areas of the city and coming down Lincoln Avenue. Future work will be done in downtown Fergus Falls and on Pebble Lake Road. 

“As the project stands right now all the light bases have been installed, all the conduits have been installed, all the conductors have been installed, like just about every project this year it hasn’t been without challenges due to some COVID-related items,” Otter Tail Power’s Nate Kunde said.

Kunge added work on Lincoln Avenue will hopefully be done by Dec. 1.

The committee approved a recommendation from Trevor Gervais to approve 2021 rates at Pebble Lake Golf Course.

Gervais pointed out the proposed rates for club services in 2021 will be increased. The single pass holder fee in 2020 was $799. The 2021 proposed rate is set at $899.

Committee member Jim Fish endorsed the rate increases saying: “There was no rate increase at all last year. It’s at a point where they need to have an increase because the cost of everything is more.”

City Administrator Andrew Bremseth requested direction from the committee about what city staff should make of the $328,000 city-owned parking lot at the former Shopko site. The council approved a purchase agreement between the city and Rivers Edge Investments LLC, on Aug. 17. It is projected that the agreement will be closed on or before March 1.

Council member Scott Kvamme proposed the city pursue buying an area north of Lincoln near the Otter Tail Valley Railroad that has the potential to be developed into a public parking lot. Kvamme also suggested using the money to improve some of the downtown lots the city already owns and one owned presently by Bank of the West.  

Committee member Justin Arneson was in favor of getting some cost figures on parking lot projects.

“I believe that if we have a parking issue that’s a good thing that means we’ve revitalized downtown,” Arneson said.

Arneson also indicated he felt some of the money could be used on the Downtown Riverfront Project the city is trying to move forward with reduced support from the state.

Committee member Brent Thompson spoke in favor of taking a more conservative approach in the use of the six-figure amount.

Thompson said he would personally like seeing the money the city spent on Maple Avenue replaced and the remainder placed in the general fund because of economic uncertainty created by COVID.

In agreeing with Thompson, committee member Anthony Hicks commented: “Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched. We haven’t sold the property yet.”

In answer to a question from Kvamme regarding disposition of funds from the city parking lot sale, city finance director Bill Sonmor informed the committee that none of the money has yet been incorporated in the planning for the 2021 budget.

The final discussion on the agenda involved what the city should do with the recently acquired property at 725 W, Maple Ave.

Bremseth said the city has been dealing with stormwater concerns at the property for several years. He said the most cost-effective option of dealing with the problem was to purchase the home for the price of $126,000.

Three basic options are to sell the property with appropriate disclosures, find a buyer who may wish to buy the home and move it off the property or simply demolish the home and garage and keep the property as green space. Bremseth pointed out the property has been winterized and all utilities turned off so there is no rush to make a decision before 2021.

After several ideas were floated by committee members Schierer summed up the discussion by saying: “I think people are on the same page at least as far as waiting, not reselling the property and giving it a little time to see if we can find a new lot for that home.”

The City Council will hold a special meeting at 7:30 a.m. Friday to canvass election results from Nov. 3. The City Council will meet Monday at 5:30 p.m.

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