Evaluating Solar Panel Effects on Wetlands

By Shawn Williams, Sr Environmental Scientist, WSB

Wetlands are vital and dynamic ecosystems that provide numerous benefits to society, including improved surface water quality, flood control, groundwater recharge, and of course wildlife habitat. Wetlands are regulated aquatic resources in the state of Minnesota.

The Wetland Conservation Act (WCA) ensures that all wetlands that are disturbed, brought into non-aquatic use, or its function and value are significantly altered are restored or replaced. In the past, the posts/pilings that are used to install solar arrays have not been considered a wetland impact that would require compensatory mitigation under the WCA. The reality is that solar arrays bring wetlands into non-aquatic use and may, or may, not negatively impact the wetland’s quality or function.

Historically, solar arrays have been sited within or near farmed wetlands (wetlands that are plowed).  If solar developers restore the disturbed wetlands following construction, such as with native plant species, the function and value may actually improve, despite the shading from the solar arrays.

To help local governments evaluate the potential impacts to a wetland’s function and value, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) issued guidance that provides a suggested approach for evaluating projects when they involve the installation of solar panels on posts/pilings in wetlands.

The guidance document can be found on the BWSR website and includes three steps:

  1. Evaluate the wetland’s condition
  2. Determine the wetland’s current functionality, and
  3. Evaluate the effect of the project on the condition and function of the wetland

WSB’s experienced Natural Resources staff are available to assess wetlands to determine the general quality and function/value they provide to the ecological setting and society. The regulatory review and technical assessment will determine if the project wetland impacts require replacement.

Please contact Shawn Williams at 612-360-1305 or [email protected] for additional information or project support.

Shawn has over 16 years of professional environmental consulting experience. He prepares site permit applications, avian surveys, wetland delineations and reports, habitat assessments, and threatened and endangered species reviews. He is trained in wetland delineation methods, wetland plant identification, floristic quality assessment methods, NPDES compliance, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

[email protected] | 763.287.8531

Engineering Needs More Surveyors

By Brad Oswald, Director of Survey Operations, WSB

Some elements of engineering are bright and shiny. Surveying is not classically considered bright and shiny. The work of a surveyor often goes unnoticed, but it is an important step to delivering a project on time and within budget.

A surveyor measures land, considering the topography of a project site, to delineate where to put infrastructure like pipes, wind turbines, solar arrays and more.

You may need a surveyor if you are:

  • Buying or selling a home or piece of land
  • Dividing a larger piece of land into smaller pieces
  • Installing a fence or pipeline

At WSB, developers, construction companies and their contractors rely on surveyors to perform boundary and land surveying on small and large projects. Boundary surveying is when a surveyor establishes the boundaries of a project site. A surveyor can tell you exactly where the boundaries of your property are, so you know what is and isn’t yours, and what’s developable. Next, a land survey will identify any easements or encroachments on the project site to determine where site improvements can be placed. The surveyor then provides a base map to engineers, who start designing the site. Once the site is designed, a surveyor will stake the design on the ground, so contractors know where to build on the site.

These steps help prevent any legal or monetary liabilities. A new homeowner may want to build a fence on their property. If they build that fence without surveying the property, they could be hit with a lawsuit if the fence encroaches on the neighboring property. Consider it on a much larger scale. A developer may plan to install wind turbines on a site. After paying the thousands of dollars to install the turbine, they could find that the turbine is encroaching on a neighboring property. Surveyors can mitigate these problems long before the wind turbine is in the ground.

Right now, the surveying industry is facing a challenge.

Less people are entering the industry. The engineering industry must come together to underscore the importance of surveying. Opportunities in the space are growing, too, as industries are focusing on increasing renewables projects across the country, even the world. These projects include pipelines, wind turbines, solar arrays, transmission and transportation projects.

Technology is also enhancing the field. With more satellites orbiting the Earth, improved GPS technology makes the job not only more efficient, but more interesting. Drones are also being utilized on larger project sites.

The work of a surveyor is critical to delivering a project, as designs and builds are based on surveys. The workforce must grow with the industry to ensure all projects are successful.

Brad has 23 years of experience in the land surveying industry with the last 18 focused on management, project delivery and mentoring. He has extensive experience in the electric and federal market sectors providing boundary, ALTA/NSPS, topographic surveys and construction staking.

[email protected] | 248.686.4745

WSB promotes Tony Havranek, lead fisheries ecologist, to director of fisheries

Havranek has led the firm’s aquatic invasive species and carp management service since 2014 and is the brains behind FisH2O, the firm’s fish logistics subsidiary.

Local design and consulting firm WSB today announced the promotion of Tony Havranek to director of fisheries. Havranek will oversee business development efforts for the firm’s fisheries work and leads operations for the firm’s fish logistics subsidiary, FisH2O.

Havranek has been with WSB since 2014 and has grown the firm’s ecological and fisheries services exponentially. In 2019, Tony led efforts to launch FisH2O, a fish logistics subsidiary that enhances WSB’s innovative invasive fish species management services. Since then, FisH2O has expanded its offerings to include fresh fish with future plans to include a research facility and aquaculture.

“Tony is recognized as a true expert in our industry and no idea is too big or out of reach for him,” said Andi Moffatt, WSB’s vice president of environmental services. “Tony’s dedication to leading the industry in sustainability and new techniques is unmatched and this type of big-picture, innovative and sky’s the limit thinking is what we encourage at WSB.”

Havranek has nearly 20 years of experience in the natural resources field. Prior to his time at WSB, Tony helped develop federal policies with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and worked with tribal communities throughout the Midwest on their natural resources needs. He is recognized throughout the industry for his forestry, water quality, fisheries, aquatic and terrestrial vegetation, wetlands and wildlife expertise.

“At WSB, I’ve found a place where I can innovate with our clients and staff to improve ecological outcomes through sustainable solutions,” said Havranek. “Together, we will continue to support watershed districts, lake associations, cities and the tribal community to improve water quality and manage invasive fish species.”

The top takeaways from the 2021 Minnesota Legislative Session

Bart Fischer, Senior Public Administrator, WSB and Gary Carlson, Intergovernmental Relations Director at the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) unpack the issues communities should pay attention to post-legislative session.

This year, there was an interesting confluence of state and congressional legislation that will impact cities more than any other time in history. The pandemic and recovery efforts will have a tremendous impact of congressional action on our cities and understanding and navigating these impacts can be extremely important in the coming months.

BF: It seems like it wasn’t that long ago that we were talking about the top issues to pay attention to going into this session, Gary. Thanks for taking the time to dive into the takeaways with me post-session.

GC: Anytime Bart. It was an exciting session with a lot of moving parts. I think one of the biggest takeaways was the impact to our state budget and the American Recovery Act. There are still many question marks and unknowns about the federal package, but if you go back a year ago, we were facing a $2.4 billion deficit and we’ve ended up with quite a surplus due to a recovering economy and the federal government. At the beginning of the session, cities and counties were watching closely as the pandemic impacted tax collections and how it would affect local government aid (LGA) distributions and road funding. Relief packages have bolstered our economy and made the economic recession much less impactful. We were expecting to see deep cuts in state aid, but the legislature put over $5 million into LGA to preserve funding for all cities.

In addition to increased funding for communities, we were also looking for some flexibility in the use of TIF to account for the impact of the pandemic. TIF districts that were created between January 1, 2018, and June 30, 2020, now have three more years to complete development activities.

BF: It’s great to hear some positive news after a year of so many challenges. The pandemic has certainly had significant impacts on our communities. Anything outside of the pandemic or relief packages that communities should be paying attention to?

GC: Yes – the Local Option Sales Tax. For many years, we’ve been having conversations about authorizing local sales taxes without the need for legislative approval. In recent years, the legislature has been trying to define what these sales taxes can be used for. This session, they have further defined allowable uses to be capital projects of regional significance that are generally buildings, park improvements or trails that provide benefits to both residents and non-residents. For example, civic centers, libraries, regional parks and trails, etc. This year, almost every county or city that sought approval for a Local Sales Tax option were approved at least in some part, with the notable exception of proposals for roads and water/wastewater projects. I expect that the trend towards sales tax as a local funding source will continue. 

BF: That’s great news.  Anything else related to taxes?

GC: We’ve been seeking streamlined sales tax exemption for local government construction projects for many years. This year, the sales tax refund process was extended to include public safety facilities when a city or county uses a construction contractor to make the initial purchase of materials. We’re really happy to see this happen. This has the potential to reduce costs by nearly 7%. Contractors will basically provide documentation of the sales tax paid on construction materials and the city can file to get a refund of that money. This is a huge benefit especially if you think about the rising cost of building materials.  

BF: Speaking of public safety, I heard that communities are now able to create multi-jurisdictional fire departments. Can you speak to that?

GC: Yes, this is an issue that many communities have been fighting for years. A group of cities or towns can now form a fire protection district and use economy of scale to fund fire protection more thoroughly. This option allows many cities to be more efficient and it’s a good government reform effort as well. I think you’ll start to see a lot of cities and townships start to explore this option as many around the state are struggling to find enough volunteer fire fighters to staff their stations.

BF: Any final thoughts on this session?

GC: I think the biggest challenges cities and counties have in front of them is determining how to use the federal funds from the American Recovery Act.  So far, 21 cities have received their distributions directly and there are 800+ more still waiting. Determining how to spend the funds will be a long-term project for many communities. Right now, cities can use the funds for a number of things; however, in relation to infrastructure, it is limited to water, sewer and broadband projects. There is some talk that Congress will allow the money to be used more broadly for infrastructure related projects. Communities of all sizes have different needs and adding some additional flexibility will really help with other infrastructure needs.

BF: Thank you, Gary.  As always, I appreciate your expertise and valuable information.

Connect with the League of Minnesota Cities Intergovernmental Relations staff.

Bart Fischer

Bart Fischer has over two decades of experience in public administration. Throughout his tenure, he’s worked in five Minnesota communities as the city or assistant city administrator.  Bart joined our firm in 2019 as a senior public administrator and focuses on lending his public service expertise to our clients.

Gary Carlson

Gary Carlson has 37 years of experience in government affairs. As the Intergovernmental Relations Director at the League of Minnesota Cities, Gary leads the League’s legislative efforts that matter to cities including aid to cities, economic development, employment and human resources, pensions and retirement, public finance, taxes, tax increment financing (TIF) and workers’ compensation.

Make Your Zoning Ordinance Resident Friendly

By Kim Lindquist, Director of Community Planning & Economic Development, WSB

Cities have spent the last few years working feverishly to get their comprehensive plans completed and approved. Many communities are now breathing a sigh of relief, recognizing the heavy lifting is complete. Unfortunately, for some the work has just begun as cities and townships enter the implementation phase of the updating process.

Most communities are good at keeping up with zoning issues that often arise, such as short-term rentals or solar farms. Zoning text amendments come up due to necessity as land use and issues dealing with structures change over time. Communities are often confronted with something unforeseen when drafting their ordinance and therefore need to amend to stay current.

Unfortunately, ordinance amendments modifying regulations may occur frequently, but there seems to be less time for critically evaluating the ordinance in its entirety. While it is common for regulations to be added to an ordinance, obsolete or confusing items are rarely removed. As residents are increasingly looking to city websites for information, cities should consider if their ordinances have been reviewed for readability and clarity for the “non-planner” public.

WSB’s Community Planning and Economic Development Group has recently been working with communities to review their ordinances. In addition to reviewing them for regulations and legal consistency, we are evaluating their presentation and readability. We are helping these communities to improve the way that the information is presented to ensure that clients, staff and the public can quickly find the answers they are looking for regarding planning and zoning with minimal frustration.

For example, residents may need to look in multiple locations within an ordinance to find the information necessary for completing a simple accessory structure building permit. Setbacks, size, exterior materials, and location standards are often placed within different sections of the zoning code, making it difficult for residents to locate. This building permit “maze” often leads to frustrated residents and calls to the community staff, many of which can be avoided through more concise and clear ordinances.

Additionally, as new staff come on board, the knowledge regarding the original intent of the ordinance may be lost. Improving clarity of the ordinance benefits both residents and practitioners, resulting in more efficient use of community resources.

Kim is a planning professional with over 30 years of experience overseeing a variety of complex planning projects. Kim worked in high growth communities working with developers and the public on entitlements for residential development and business attraction to the city.

[email protected] | 763.287.8303

Building Resiliency into Public Works

By Amy Fredregill, Sr Director of Sustainability, WSB

Reliable resources are necessary for every municipality, and consequently, sustainability in public works programs has grown into a long-term goal for municipalities. Prioritizing sustainability and resiliency in a municipality’s infrastructure ensures that programs are reliable, so that when a user turns on their faucet or light switch, water or electricity is delivered.

Resiliency is an important part of sustainability planning. Resiliency is achieved by having a maximum number of options to be able to pivot and adapt to a disruption in an infrastructure system. For example, a main road in a user’s neighborhood could be under construction, or a resident may not have a vehicle. If the municipality has walkways or bikeways through the neighborhood, the user has the option to walk or bike to their job, store, or pharmacy. The ever-expanding choices can lead to healthier communities, encourage tourism, commerce and more.

Cultivating resiliency is not as complicated as it may sound; creating a walkway or bikeway trail system in a neighborhood is only one example. A municipality can invest in water reuse, renewable energy, energy efficiency, stormwater and flood management systems, too. The programs can be built into a large sustainability plan. Moreover, due to evolving technology, increased adoption rates and system investments, energy choices such as renewable energy and conservation can reduce costs and risks. Communities can take advantage of tax credits for renewables, rebates for conservation, and hedge financial risk through emissions reductions.

The systems we rely on – power and gas grids, water and wastewater systems – are complex and critical to daily life. With the significant progress in energy choices at our disposal, cities can offer more services to residents such as electric vehicle charging, helping them to reduce their monthly bills through energy audits and weatherization, increasing outreach and awareness on clean energy programs, and more.

Winter storms underscore the value of having a range of options at our disposal. By having a diverse menu of power generation options and increasingly energy-efficient operations, communities can be more resilient and adapt to changing circumstances. These are things that cities and communities are thinking about for their own sustainability plans. Prioritizing sustainability and resiliency in municipal systems can help prevent, adapt to and mitigate disruptions in the future.

Amy has nearly 25 years of experience across many industries, particularly energy and agriculture, in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. This experience has provided Amy with a broad background that enables her to meet community and business needs based on the business case for sustainability. By working across intersecting systems to simultaneously advance environmental, economic and social goals, she is able to uncover creative solutions.

[email protected] | 612.965.1489

Zweig Group honors WSB with Marketing Excellence Awards

The Zweig Group, the leading research, publishing and advisory services resource for the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry, has honored WSB with three awards in marketing.

Every year, the organization offers an awards program that specifically recognizes outstanding work within the AEC industry throughout North America.

Marketing Excellence Awards

Zweig recently announced the winners of the 2021 Marketing Excellence Awards for outstanding, results-driven marketing. Zweig awards the top five firms in each possible category. WSB ranked first place in one category and third in two others.

Award entries were judged by a team of marketing professionals and evaluated based upon overall creativity, messaging, results achieved by the campaign, and level of design.

Advertising | Road Work Ahead Mailer | First Place

Our Marketing team worked closely with our Municipal team to create a direct mail and email campaign that promoted our construction related services. The piece was shaped like a road construction sign that read “Road Work Ahead” on the cover. Inside we talked about our approach and philosophy around construction and highlighted our relevant service areas to support all aspects of construction projects.

Internal Newsletter | Year In Review | Third Place

The Year In Review received a third-place award in the Internal Newsletter category. Since 2009, WSB has published our annual Year In Review. For over a decade, this publication has recapped the previous year and has been distributed at our firm’s annual celebration. The goal is simple – to tell the story of WSB to our staff and external partners.. The Year In Review is one of the ways we celebrate our accomplishments in the past year and tell our internal WSB story. 

We always include an overview of firm achievements and milestones at the beginning of the publication – because we are one WSB.  Even though our work, projects and staff extend across the nation, together  we’re working towards a common goal. The rest of the publication was broken up into our divisions and culture highlights. Our projects and work are always very important to our story, but it’s the people behind the projects that really help shape the way we work. 

Special Event | 25th Anniversary Special Edition Newsletter | Third Place

In 2020, WSB celebrated our 25th Anniversary. We had many plans prior to the pandemic to keep the celebration going all year long. Client events, staff events, videos, social campaigns – many of these celebrations involved being together in person. When the pandemic hit, we had to switch gears.

Twice a year, WSB publishes an external newsletter. For over 10 years, WSB has mailed a newsletter highlighting projects, innovations, techniques and news. As we began preparing our content for Volume 2 of 2021, our CEO Bret Weiss, mentioned that he thought it would be a great opportunity to highlight our 25th Anniversary. Twenty-five years have built many memories – more than we could share on the pages of the newsletter, many that are best told by the people who lived them and a couple that should never be in print. We realized that there are countless people, places and projects that have shaped our story, but there were also many things that contributed to our success over the years. We decided to move forward and tell the story of 25 years through 25 things. The 25 ‘things’ varied – some were personal to individuals, some were from long ago, and some were new things that emerged since our rebrand. Through 25 ‘things’ we shared the story of WSB.

The Complete list of Marketing Excellence Award Winners can be accessed here: https://www.zweiggroup.com/2021-marketing-excellence-award-winners/