TOWN OF GILMAN -- A propped open door provided some cooling to a packed Gilman Town Hall, but did not do much for the rising tensions within.

The Town of Gilman Plan Commission held a public meeting last week to discuss a Western Mustang Solar Array conditional-use permit application. No official action was taken at the nearly four hour long meeting, which addressed some of the resident's concerns.

On Wednesday night, township supervisors gave a presentation clarifying their process and role in the proposed project as well as highlighted some project concerns. Project representatives were present to address common concerns of Gilman residents.

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The meeting’s public comment time allowed residents five minutes each to share their voice. More time was granted to a few individuals at the commission’s discretion. Concerns ranged form setbacks to loss in property value and emergency management plans. Some people threatened to move out of Gilman, while others spoke in favor of the project. The intense evening ended with questions for Ranger Power and recommendations to be addressed at the next meeting.

A brief look at the project

Western Mustang Solar would be a 74-megawatt solar facility by Ranger Power. The project would be located on privately owned land, including about 1,000 acres in Gilman, according to the project’s website. The project would feature rows of solar panels with 16 to 20 feet between each row. The panels would shift to face the sun throughout the day to be as efficient as possible.

[JARGON WATCH: A megawatt is 1 million watts or 1,000 kilowatts. A watt is the standard unit of measuring electrical power. A refrigerator has a wattage of around 225, while a water heater takes upwards of 4,000 watts to power, according to Energy.gov.]

Ranger Power representatives said the project is expected to last 30 to 40 years, with a possible extension contingent on the marketplace, community, landowners and Western Mustang Solar itself.

The project would provide energy for more than 10,000 homes and provide a new source of funds for both the township and Pierce County under the state’s shared revenue program. An annual payment of $296,000 would be split: one third ($123,300) to Gilman and two thirds ($172,700) to Pierce County for hosting the facility. The project’s permit application includes a decommissioning plan to return the land to agricultural use.

Western Mustang Solar will use land located within the yellow areas in this map. Image from westernmustangsolar.com
Western Mustang Solar will use land located within the yellow areas in this map. Image from westernmustangsolar.com

Wednesday’s meeting

“How many believe the town has the power to stop this project?” Tom Manley, Plan Commission chair, asked at the beginning of the meeting. A few people raised their hands.

“The fact of the matter is the town has no zoning authority. That rests entirely with the county,” Manley said. “If we were to recommend denial this project still gets built, unless of course if the developer chooses to walk away.”

At that point Manley looked toward Ranger Power representatives and asked if they had any plans on walking away from the project, they replied no.

“So if we deny, we are essentially forfeiting the little bit of influence we do have over the process,” Manley told the crowd of about 50 residents. “If we deny it here, I promise you that will not be the end result,” he continued. “I don’t base that on my own opinion. I say that on every single bit of legal advice that I've received before we started this process and throughout the process.”

Bob Loberg, an attorney from Ellsworth, explained the recommendation process to the county. Because the township had opted out of creating a zoning authority, the project is in the county’s hands.

“Under the Pierce County zoning ordinance you have no veto power whatsoever over what the county does,” Loberg said. However under the county “Smart Growth” Comprehensive Plan, the county has established some policies. Policies aren’t law.

Pierce County Comprehensive Plan 2035 reveals that “Pierce County will consider adherence to the goals, objectives, and policies of an adopted or amended comprehensive plan to be consistent with the public interest for conditional use permitting decision relating to that governmental unit or municipality.”

Note the word “consider.”

The Town of Gilman does have a comprehensive plan, which its Plan Commission has the power to develop.

Loberg also brought up Wisconsin Statute 62.23(7)(de). "in essence, it means that if an applicant makes an application for the commission and agrees to meet all of the conditions, all of which must be reasonable and based on substantial evidence … if they agree to meet the conditions the permit must be granted,” Loberg said.

Looking to the future

This issue is not new and has been discussed since the town got the CUP application in December, according to Manley.

At this point, the town will come up with some recommended conditions for the project and forward those to the county as well as evidence to back those recommendations up. Officials indicated that concerns that warrant recommendations or conditions include:

  • Project use of roads and road repair obligations

  • Construction hours, plan and staging area

  • Revenue questions and school impacts

  • Assurances, bonds and decommissioning protections

  • Setbacks, vegetation areas and fencing and other environmental concerns

The Plan Commission will vote on a final recommendation March 9. At the meeting, there will be a brief public comment period, everyone will be able to look at the recommended conditions and any amendments to the language will be done then. The recommendation will be sent to the Town Board, which will meet on March 11.

For more information on upcoming meetings and on the project, visit the Town of Gilman website.