Commissioners to consider solar regulations

Proposed regulations where large solar fields may be located will be considered by the Bartholomew County Commissioners Monday.

County officials reminded those planning on attending the meeting that no specific project will be discussed at the meeting.

“We are not advocating for solar farms nor are we trying to keep them away,” commissioners’ Chairman Carl Lienhoop said. “That is not our decision.”

Instead, the three commissioners will only focus on proposed setbacks from neighboring properties, as well as right-of-way on county roads and highways, he said.

Since an ordinance requires two separate votes at two different meetings, the commissioners won’t take a final vote until either Oct. 24 or Oct. 31st, Lienhoop said. At this time, the chairman says he’s leaning toward waiting only a week between the first and second readings of the ordinance.

What the commissioners will consider Monday are proposed regulations approved Aug. 10 with a 6-1 vote by the Bartholomew County Plan Commission. These regulations refer to large solar fields that planners refer to as Commercial Solar Energy Systems (CSES).

The proposal calls for a solar field to be set back 200 feet from residential lots of 5 acres or less. Earlier drafts established it at 500 feet while some have asked that the setback be extended to at least 700 feet. Advocates say if setbacks are too large, it will make it impossible to site any solar farm.

The recommendations that will be presented by Columbus/Bartholomew County Planning Director Jeff Bergman will include provisions that no structures, equipment, storage area, vehicle service drive or fence be allowed within 250 feet of several forms of residential developments. That was lowered from the initial proposal of 500 feet.

The proposal does call for a 500-foot setback from schools, day-care centers, hospitals, retirement centers and other community facilities unless a waiver is obtained between the involved parties.

Another provision states no solar energy system electrical substation be allowed within 500 feet of residential properties. That distance was lowered from an earlier recommendation of 750 feet.

A consensus was reached by the plan commission that complete decommissioning of a solar field should be required regardless of the presence of a financial guarantee. That includes any instance where a financial guarantee is insufficient for the complete removal of equipment.

Other provisions state solar arrays are not to exceed 20 feet in height when oriented at maximum tilt, and shall provide a minimum clearance of 3 feet between the ground and the solar panel. Advocates say the clearance is needed for the purpose of vegetative ground cover, which is expected to serve as a deterrent to soil erosion.

Topographic maps will also be required before construction – and again during decommissioning – in order to ensure the surface grade is restored to its pre-construction conditions.

Commission members also agreed that since natural buffers such as trees or shrubs take several years to develop, details regarding buffers should be worked out between property owners, their neighbors or with the solar field developer.

If approved by the three county commissioners on second reading, the proposed amendments would be used as a starting point by the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals whenever a variance for a proposed solar field is considered, Bergman said last summer. He added that a public hearing is required of every solar field request brought to the BZA.

If the commissioners make no changes to the recommendations, the proposal will become law, Lienhoop said. But if the commissioners make any changes, the ordinance goes back to the Bartholomew County Plan Commission for their approval or rejection, he said.

In recent months, the county commissioners have received several letters, emails and phone calls regarding solar fields.

“But we have only had one or two that have addressed the setbacks,” Lienhoop said. Instead, most are only stating whether they are for or against solar panels in agricultural fields, he said.

Some residents may want to talk Monday about a proposed joint venture between Arevon Energy Inc. and Teneska, an Omaha, Nebraska energy company. The two companies want to create a potential 200-MW Commercial Solar Energy System (CSES) to be called Swallowtail Solar Farm at a yet-undetermined location east of Columbus, north of East 25th Street and west of State Road 9.

But Lienhoop said the commissioners won’t get involved in siting specific locations.

“In the end, when it comes to siting a solar farm in Bartholomew County, it will go before the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals,” Lienhoop said. “It will be the BZA that will actually make the decision on whether it comes or doesn’t come.”

A large crowd is anticipated at the commissioner’s chambers, located on the first floor of the Bartholomew County Governmental Office building at Third and Franklin streets. Many are expected to prefer joining the meeting through Zoom video conferencing, he said.

For that reason, ground rules have been established for the public hearing.

  • Individual comments will be limited to three minutes. The time limit will be strictly enforced.
  • No video or PowerPoint presentations from the public will be allowed.
  • Speakers will be asked to not repeat themselves.

“I have said to several groups, as well as during candidate forums, that solar farms are a very emotional issue,” Lienhoop said. “I don’t know what you can do about that.”

Opponents argue a neighboring solar field might have a negative impact on their property values and/or be aesthetically unpleasing. Many insist they support alternative forms of energy, but oppose placing solar fields on farmland. Instead, they have expressed a preference that a CSES be placed in a urban brownfield or on non-agricultural land in need of redevelopment.

Lienhoop, a lifelong farmer, admits he has his own personal feelings about solar farms.

“But I think that, in this scenario, I have to keep them to myself and do the job we’re supposed to do,” he said.

He said he hopes farmers who lease land for solar fields realize they are making a commitment that can last 20 to 30 years.

“It’s almost like a marriage,” Lienhoop said. “And there are a lot of marriages that don’t last 20 to 30 years.”

If you go An ordinance containing proposed regulations for siting solar fields will have the first of two readings, as well as a public hearing, before the Bartholomew County Commissioners at 10 a.m. Monday. The entrance to their chambers is located off Third Street at the county’s governmental office building at the corner of Third and Lafayette streets.

For those who wish to attend the meeting through Zoom video conferencing, it can be reached online at

For those attending by Zoom who would like to speak during the meeting, use the “Raise Hand” function located in the Zoom app and the commissioners will call on you.

You can find this feature as follows:

Mobile phone or tablet app: Click the three dots that say “More” then tap the Raise Hand button.

Desktop/Laptop computer app: Click on the “Reactions” button on the bottom tool bar. Click on Raise Hand in that menu.