Bootlegger Trail solar farm proposal goes to Cascade County zoning board

The Cascade County Zoning Board of Adjustment is considering an application for a solar farm on Bootlegger Trail, just north of the city limits.

The ZBOA meets Thursday morning at 9 a.m. in Room 105 of the Courthouse Annex at 325 2nd Ave. N.

The board will be considering an application for an unspecified use permit from Pacific Northwest Solar, LLC and property owners Robert and Darla Heihn for the installation/operation of a photovoltaic solar power generation facility.

The applicants are proposing using 30 acres of a 112.08 acre parcel.

The property is currently zoned Suburban Residential and is undeveloped grassland.

According to Pacific Northwest Solar’s application, the proposed facility would produce as much as three megawatts alternating current of renewable electric power. The proposal includes “solar arrays on steel racking, consisting of photovoltaic modules oriented toward the south (generally) and placed upon a single-axis tracking system, inverters (to allow for transmission to the utility grid), connections to the existing power lines, as well as necessary access and safety features (including access roads, perimeter roads, and fencing),” according to the company’s application.

If the permit is approved, Pacific Northwest Solar anticipates construction starting this year and being completed by the end of 2018. The project would operate for a minimum of 40 years, according to the application, and when it has reached its operational end, the site will be returned to its pre-construction state.

The solar facility would be interconnected with NorthWestern Energy’s distribution system, but a November study from NWE indicated the connection would require $337,000 worth of upgrades to the distribution system.

The permit application includes a report from an appraiser out of North Carolina who determined the project would “not substantially injure the value of adjoining or abutting property and that the proposed use in harmony with the area in which it is located.”

According to the application and staff report, the proposed project would have minimal impact on the surrounding area and the applicant is planning a landscape buffer along the north side of the solar plant that is visible to residences located on Bootlegger Lateral.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks commented that even though the site has low value to wildlife, it’s close to Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge and encouraged county staff to contact the refuge for comment. Staff sent an interested agency notice but received no comment from the refuge. According to the staff report, FWP recommends using the design standards in the Fish and Wildlife Recommendations for Subdivision Development in Montana. The agency suggested breaking up the reflective surface with non-polarizing white borders to avoid the solar panels looking like a body of water, otherwise known as the “Lake Effect” impact on birds since the area falls in the route of waterfowl between Benton Lake Refuge and the Missouri River. Underground power lines and a protocol for injured birds discovered on site are also suggestions from FWP.

FWP also mentioned the 2017 observations of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem and stated that grizzly bears may use the area proposed for the Bootlegger solar plant as their territory expands beyond the Rocky Mountain front and into the Great Falls area.