Solar rules back before county board

For the third time, the Bartholomew County Plan Commission will meet to consider revisions to proposed zoning amendments concerning solar fields.

After changes were made to the group’s recommendations by the Bartholomew County Commissioners, the plan will go back before the Plan Commission on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 8:30 a.m.

The consideration of revisions will be held during a regularly scheduled monthly meeting with a format similar to two public hearings held over the summer, Columbus/Bartholomew County Planning Director Jeff Bergman said.

“The exception will be that, instead of five minutes being allocated per speaker, that number will be reduced to three minutes per speaker,” Bergman said. “That was the time limit set at the County Commissioners meeting.”

The Plan Commission will be given only the opportunity to agree or disagree with the County Commissioners’ changes, Bergman said. If they agree, the process is complete and the changes go into effect.

But if there is disagreement, Bergman says members will be given an opportunity to state their reasons, and the proposed regulations will go back to the County Commissioners, who will have 45 days to act on the matter.

During their August meeting, the Plan Commission stated that solar fields, which the commission calls Commercial Solar Energy Systems (CSES), should be set back 200-feet from residential lots of five acres or less. Earlier drafts established it at 500 feet.

That was the draft that went before the County Commissioners on Oct.17, with commissioner Tony London’s motion that the proposal be adopted as presented. It passed on its first reading 2-1, with commissioners’ Chairman Carl Lienhoop casting the only ‘nay’ vote.

But when the second and final reading came up one week later on Oct. 24, London made a motion for changes more restrictive than the ones he advocated just a week earlier. The changes approved by the commissioners to be considered by the Plan Commission include:

  • Setbacks of a solar field shall be 200 feet from all non-participating property lines. No exceptions, including property separated by roads. A 200-foot setback will also be in effect for schools, churches and residential zoning districts.
  • Setbacks of a solar field shall be 500 feet from all nonparticipating residences. No exceptions will be made unless both property owners sign a waiver. Equipment height shall be changed from 3 feet to 1 foot clearing from the ground. Variances will be allowed to be made between the property owners and the developers.

When asked why he was now calling for changes, London described the plan approved by the Plan Commission as complicated and in need of simplifying. After listening to local residents, as well as reading correspondence from the public, London said the changes approved on Oct. 24 create a better balance for a controversial issue.

“I don’t think I changed my mind,” London said. “I think I learned more.”

London says he doesn’t take it lightly that the commissioners are dealing with people’s property, livelihoods and generations of family history.

However, London also acknowledged that solar power in Bartholomew County is inevitable, especially because Duke Energy will be retiring several coal plants and has made a commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2050. If the commissioners don’t set regulations, state lawmakers will create their own without concern for a balance or for public opinion in Bartholomew County.

While the Plan Commission will hear from anyone requesting to speak on Nov. 9, Bergman is asking the public to be efficient with their time, and strive to bring forward new information.

“I think we all understand there has been quite an abundance of public comment to this point,” Bergman said. “So while the commission will be welcoming of public comment, they are hoping to hear something that is new for them – not something they’ve already spent quite a bit of time discussing.”