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Zoning for solar installations likely to evolve as use increases

Solar panels
Jim Meadows
Illinois Public Media

So far, most solar panel projects in Normal have been roof mounted, but there is potential for more ground-mounted units like the one the town council approved this week for Grace Church on Hovey Avenue.

City Manager Pam Reece said Grace Church has open space around it, but if a neighborhood fills in around a future ground-mounted solar installation, or someone applies for ground-mounted units in an already-developed area, it could attract resident push back over sight lines and upkeep issues.

"They have to be high enough so you can mow underneath, things like that," Reece said on WGLT's Sound Ideas." We're trying to address maintenance. But really, I think what we would need to do is some research on what is working in other communities and what isn't."

Reece said town zoning code addressing ground-mounted solar panels is only a couple years old. Solar units mounted on roofs have become a significant portion of the building permits issued in the town this year thanks to government incentives.

Housing construction

Higher interest rates continue to sap housing construction in central Illinois. Reece said new construction permits were slow in the first half of the year.

"We're actually behind 2022, but we understand that with Weldon Reserve, which was approved late last year as detached single-family homes, that that's moving forward. We expect to issue some more permits in the third and fourth quarter of this year," said Reece.

Weldon Reserve is a housing development being constructed adjacent to the Wintergreen II subdivision in north Normal.

There also are signs of more construction activity for next year, she said. The planning commission just reviewed a proposal for another multi-family housing project, and several landowners are going through paperwork to finalize plats and drawings to build out vacant portions of existing subdivisions, she said.

Broadview Mansion

On Monday, the council approved a nearly $145,000 contract with Garneau Construction to repair and maintain the bell tower at the historic Broadview Mansion on South Fell Avenue. It was one of three bids submitted for the work. Reece said the difference in the bids came because Garneau proposed different construction methods than the other two bidders.

“Our subject matter expert in an architectural firm reviewed the bids(and) felt confident that Garneau’s strategy would work,” said Reece, adding when there is a disparity in project bids, the town takes steps to make sure all the bids are real world.

“We have not only the town team to review the bids and make sure they comply with the bid specs, but also subject matter experts like a design consultant or engineering consultant,” she said.

She noted the risk when is on the bidder to be able to do the work for the dollar amount they project.

The mansion and its brick tower are on the National Register of Historic Places, but the town doesn't own the mansion or the tower. It does own the Sprague Super Service building on Old Route 66, the Ecology Action Center building, and the Normal Theater that also are on the register, said Reece.

The council made the decision for the town to absorb the cost of some upkeep of the mansion owned by the Emanuel Bible Foundation in 2014. Because of the value of the VanLeer mansion to the community and its historic significance, the council chose to try to maintain that property in its historical integrity. In exchange, the town has a right of first refusal to purchase the property.

“In 2023, I think the dollar value would be half a million dollars," said Reece. "In each year, it reduces by $50,000 until 2033. And so we have until 2033, I think, to decide if if we wanted to acquire the property, and if there was someone else interested.”

It is difficult to come up with a rule that defines when a property is of such historic value that it merits town involvement with or without ownership, and when it does not.

“The only way I can answer that is back in 2014, the Bible Foundation had some prospective purchasers of the property that were looking to use that property for redevelopment, maybe for multifamily housing and the like, so different types of uses. And that's when the town stepped forward,” said Reece.

“I think that it was a win-win solution. And the Bible Foundation still invests heavily in the property, and they still manage it. We have some public use of the property.”

She said if there are other similar properties, the town would talk about solutions that could benefit the public.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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