City to consider solar zoning standards

Columbus officials will consider regulations for solar fields after Bartholomew County approved its new zoning regulations on the fields last November.

The city planning department has included “revision of the Columbus zoning regulations to include standards for commercial solar energy facilities” as one of the projects planned for this year.

“I think this is probably a summer start also, following up with the work the county did last year around zoning ordinance regulations for those large-scale commercial solar facilities with a city process that would ideally result in amendments to the city zoning ordinance as well,” City/County Planning Director Jeff Bergman said. “Hopefully something that works in coordination with where the county is, but not necessarily.”

He confirmed that the process of consideration would be as follows:

  • The city plan commission would have the proposed zoning ordinance changes on its agenda as a discussion item initially.
  • The commission would vote at a later meeting to send a recommendation to Columbus City Council regarding the changes.
  • City council would then vote on whether to approve the changes (with two readings required for approval).

The county’s ordinance on commercial solar energy systems was instituted in November, with the Bartholomew County Plan Commission voting 6-1 to approve changes submitted by the county commissioners, which differed from the plan commission’s original recommendations. The full ordinance can be accessed on the City of Columbus-Bartholomew County Planning Department website.

A commercial solar energy system is defined as “a system that captures and converts solar energy into electricity for the primary purpose of wholesale sales of generated electricity and for use in locations other than where it is generated.”

“This definition does not include residential or other uses with solar arrays capturing solar energy for primarily on-site use, with any excess amounts supplied to the electrical grid,” the ordinance states.

Throughout the ordinance’s development, county officials have heard from a large number of individuals with varying perspectives on how stringent regulations should be.

“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, in the fall. “Some say animal control is more contentious, but this issue has resulted in the most feedback.”

Per the approved county ordinance, setbacks of a solar field must be 200 feet from all non-participating property lines, as well as any nearby schools, churches and residential zoning districts. Additionally, setbacks must be 500 feet from all non-participating residences. No exceptions will be made unless both property owners sign a waiver.

For each proposed solar field development in the county, 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. Planning officials have said that the provisions of the ordinance are flexible, and the board of zoning appeals has the authority to place conditions on developments.

The effort to update Columbus zoning regulations with commercial solar energy standards was just one of the projects listed on the planning department’s work plan, which Bergman has described as “the projects and the big picture tasks” that the department anticipates spending time on over the next couple of years.

The plan estimates that work on the “Columbus Commercial Solar Zoning Ordinance Update” could occur from May to October.

Another suggested future project for further down the road is the creation of “Solar Energy Compatible Housing Requirements / Guidelines,” such as proper roof exposures for future solar panel installations.