Commission approves solar rule changes

The Bartholomew County Plan Commission in a 5-2 vote has approved changes submitted by the county commissioners to an ordinance regulating placement of solar fields.

The commission approved changes submitted by commissioners to the original recommendations approved by the plan commission in August. Tom Finke and Arnold Haskill cast the only ‘nay’ votes at the end of the two-hour meeting.

“I’ve been a (county) commissioner for almost two years, and this is the most contentious issue to come before us,” said Tony London, who also sits on the plan commission. “Some say animal control is more contentious, but this issue has resulted in the most feedback.”

Although Bartholomew County’s solar field ordinance is now in place, large scale projects such as the proposed 200-megawatt Swallowtail Solar Farm won’t be considered until next year, London said.

That’s because developers Arevon Energy Inc. and Teneska will have to make specific plans for the project east of Columbus, west of State Road 9 and north of East 25th St.

For each proposed solar field development, a public hearing will be held before the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals before board members take a vote based on a specific set of criteria.

One of the key factors within the ordinance is that it allows negotiations between solar energy companies and neighboring farmers to reduce the established setbacks.

Changes made by thecommissioners last month that are now part of the ordinance 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 feet setback will also be in effect for schools, churches and residential zoning districts.
  • Setbacks of a solar field shall be 500 feet from all non-participating 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.

In addition, the commissioners took out all wording regarding the size of a parcel of property. However, no changes were requested for the recommended 500 feet setback for a substation, nor for a one-half mile setback from a town’s corporate boundaries.

Although this was the fifth public hearing held since mid-summer on solar field regulations, more than 20 individuals addressed commission members Wednesday. An additional 18 others sent emails or another form of written correspondence that were distributed to commission members and made part of the public record.

During the hearing, several rural residents expressed different opinions on the impact of the county commissioners’ amended setbacks. One of the top concerns was whether the setbacks will hinder the planting of crops on smaller parcels of farmland.

“Where is the fairness in the changes proposed by (the county commissioners),” landowner Greg Daily asked. “Why am I paying increased property taxes that allow teachers to be paid more money, but I am taking a 21% cut in income from these setbacks?”

Another property owner, Lois Bonnell, said she knew one farmer leasing land within 500 feet of where 15 residences were built. Under the ordinance adopted Wednesday, the farmer would have to get permission from all 15 to shorten the 500-foot setback.

In contrast, land owner Tim McNealy, who owns land next to farmland optioned by Teneska, advocated for the changes made by the commissioners. A petition signed by 276 individuals who agree with the commissioners’ changes was earlier presented. McNealy also cited surveys that he claims show that only 4% of surveys taken by 251 rural residents favor 200-foot setbacks, instead of those at 500 feet.

McNealy described the revisions as “fair, equitable, reasonable – and does not favor those with a vested interest in the outcome.”

After a number of comments were made that repeated points made in earlier meetings, commission member Jorge Morales reminded his peers their only choice was to give a “yes” or “no” to proposed changes.

It was also emphasized that ordinance provisions are flexible. Most concerns can be directly made to the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals during public hearings where specific proposals are made.

“The BZA does have the authority to place conditions on a development,” said Senior Planner Emilie Pinkston of the Columbus/Bartholomew County Planning Department.

Despite some repetition, there was some new information revealed Wednesday. For example, Teneska Director of Project Development Jarrod Pitts revealed his company intends to use all 2,000 acres they have optioned in Bartholomew County for solar fields.

There was also a legal concern expressed by a lawyer well-acquainted with solar power rules and regulations.

“The focus on 500-foot setbacks, as far as residences are concerned, will not just be a political or policy issue,” retired Columbus attorney Mike Mullett said. “It’s going to become a legal issue.”

Mullett, a representative of the Energy Matters nonprofit group concerned with global warming, also claimed the county is going to run into jurisdictional issues as well.

Wednesday was also the first time a resident brought up concerns of climate change. Colin Norris warned that temperatures are expected to rise 4 degrees by the end of this century. To prevent that from happening, carbon dioxide emissions have to be lowered by 50% over the next eight years, he said.

But excessive setbacks regarding solar fields will reduce the amount of renewable energy that can be generated, Norris said.