Commission considers solar amendments

The Bartholomew County Plan Commission will consider potential zoning ordinance amendments regarding commercial solar energy systems (CSESs) during its next two meetings.

Six pages of proposed amendments have been prepared for the commission to discuss at a regularly scheduled meeting on June 8. While the public may attend this meeting or watch it via video conferencing, board members aid no public comment will be taken in June.

However, local residents will be invited to comment when the commission holds a public hearing on the amendments on July 13.

Both meetings begin at 8:30 a.m. in the first floor Cal Brand meeting room at Columbus City Hall.

Residents are reminded that if the plan commission takes any action, it will only serve as a recommendation to the Bartholomew County commissioners, who will make final decisions. Amendments approved by the county commissioners would only pertain to unincorporated areas of the county, excluding extended planning jurisdictions for Columbus and Edinburgh.

Last year, an attempt to mandate state guidelines regarding large-scale solar arrays (House Bill 1381) died in the Indiana General Assembly. The proposal was opposed by a large number of county governments, including Bartholomew, because “it essentially eliminates local jurisdiction over zoning control of siting of wind turbines and solar panel fields,” Bartholomew County attorney Grant Tucker said.

This year, state lawmakers approved Senate Bill 411, which allows communities to voluntarily adopt regulations that will qualify them as a wind- or solar-ready community, with the hope being that these standards will significantly cut project development time, lower costs, and create thousands of jobs in the clean energy industries.

The proposed zoning amendments to be considered for rural Bartholomew County include the following:

  • All structures, equipment, storage areas and fencing, along with the solar panels, to be set back a minimum of 50 feet from the actual or planned right-of-way next to the nearest street or road.
  • For rear yard setbacks, the distance must be a minimum of 30 feet from all side and rear property lines.
  • No CSES facility shall be located closer than half-a-mile to any municipal boundary line.
  • No electrical substation for a solar farm will be located within 750 feet of residential properties, while the minimum distance for related components shall be within 500 feet.

All solar arrays cannot exceed 20 feet in height when oriented at maximum tilt. In addition, perennial vegetated ground cover consisting only of plants native to Indiana must be maintained around and under the panels.

The proposals also calls for any installed lights on the property to not disturb neighboring homes, while all power and communication cables must be buried underground to a depth of at least 36 inches below grade.

Other proposals up for consideration include screening outdoor storage areas from view, while a buffer must be used to screen Battery Energy Storage Systems if within 200 feet of a public road. There are also regulations regarding fencing and posted warnings.

The proposal also discusses decommissioning any commercial solar energy system that hasn’t been used for more than a year, as well as site restoration requirements.

It won’t be enough to simply remove all items related to a non-functioning solar field. A decommissioning and site restoration plan, as well as cost estimates, must also be submitted.

Every person or company that applies to have a solar energy system installed must provide a financial guarantee in the form of an irrevocable letter of credit, performance bond, or surety bond for 125% of the total estimated cost of decommissioning.

These amendments only apply to systems that capture solar energy for the primary purpose of wholesale sales of generated electricity, and for use in locations other than where the electricity is generated.

However, they don’t apply to residential or other uses with solar arrays capturing solar energy for on-site use.