Commission forwards commercial solar recommendations to city council in split vote`

Jana Wiersema | The Republic Members of the Columbus Plan Commission consider solar system regulations for the city.

Columbus planning officials have proposed regulations on commercial solar facilities that include prohibiting development in areas of Bartholomew County that are part of the city’s extended planning jurisdiction, with the provision that Columbus City Council can grant waivers on a case-by-case basis.

The Columbus Plan Commission voted Wednesday to send a number of proposed zoning ordinance amendments forward to city council with a favorable recommendation, including regulations for solar farms.

Councilman and commission member Dave Bush made a motion to send the draft of proposed changes forward with two revisions recommended by city/county planning director Jeff Bergman based on the commission’s discussion.

One was to amend the municipal setbacks for commercial solar energy systems that had been proposed in the draft. The proposed changes drafted by planning staff had stated that commercial solar energy systems (CSES) must be at least a mile and a half away from Columbus’s city limits, unless a waiver is granted by city council. However, after some discussion, most commissioners felt it would be better to extend the boundary to the plan commission’s entire two-mile jurisdiction.

Bergman also recommended adding “little free libraries” to a list of items identified as incidental structures that are exempt from regulation in another section of the zoning ordinance.

The vote was 7-2, with members Dennis Baute and Barry Kastner stating that they felt the commercial solar regulations were too restrictive.

“The bottom line is, the world’s on fire, and it’s going to affect not just our grandkids, but I look around here, and we commission members, our kids are going to be affected by climate change,” said Baute. “And this is a baby step forward, but it’s just not enough, in my opinion.”

For the city plan commission’s jurisdiction, solar farms are currently listed as a conditional use in the Agriculture: Preferred zoning district and prohibited elsewhere, Bergman said. At present, the city’s zoning ordinance does not include specific minimum setbacks or other development standards for these systems.

The Bartholomew County Plan Commission voted in late 2022 to approve an ordinance on commercial systems with specific regulations.

The proposed zoning ordinance amendments for Columbus outline regulations for three types of solar systems: on-site use systems, neighborhood-scale systems and commercial systems.

On-site use systems are defined as systems that capture solar energy primarily for use on the property where the system is located, with excess amounts supplied to the electrical grid.

Neighborhood scale systems are defined as “solar energy systems capturing solar energy for use primarily by those properties within a specific neighborhood or development, with any excess amounts supplied to the electrical grid.”

A CSES 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. … It also includes facilities from which solar energy is made available to individual off-site residential, commercial, industrial, or other end users through a subscription or sponsorship system.”

In conformity with the county regulations, the proposed city regulations state that setbacks of a commercial solar field must be 200 feet from all nonparticipating property lines and 500 feet from all nonparticipating residences. Electrical substations for solar fields must be setback at least 500 feet from nonparticipating property lines.

However, while the county regulations state that solar fields must be at least a half-mile away from municipal boundary lines, the proposed city rules now state that solar fields cannot be located in areas that lie within the city’s planning jurisdiction but are outside of city limits, said Bergman.

Indiana law allows city and town plan commissions throughout the state to establish an expanded planning jurisdiction, provided it extends no farther than two miles from each incorporated city or town boundary.

As such, areas outside Columbus that are part of the city plan commission’s jurisdiction are often referred to as city’s two-mile jurisdiction.

Exceptions to the setback standards for commercial solar are allowed with a waiver from the affected entities. In the case of developments that potentially encroach on the setbacks from non-participating properties and dwellings, the affected property owners would need to agree to a waiver.

For proposed development that falls within Columbus’s two-mile jurisdiction, the developer would need a waiver from city council, Bergman said.

Under both the county ordinance and the proposed city amendments, the required minimum setback distances do not apply to “any cables buried underground or to the cable that connects the Commercial Solar Energy System (CSES) electrical substation to the transmission line (when located either above or below ground).”

Apart from the difference in municipal setbacks, the proposed regulations generally mirror the county’s ordinance.

This includes a proposed change to make CSES a conditional use in the Agriculture: General Rural zoning district. These facilities are already a conditional use in the Agriculture: Preferred district.

Under the proposal, CSES would continue to be prohibited in all other zoning districts, Bergman said.

Any instance of a conditional use must be authorized by either the Columbus Board of Zoning Appeals or the BZA hearing officer. The board of zoning appeals makes its decision based on specific criteria and has the option to place conditions or commitments on applications that it chooses to approve.

During the time for public comment, about 15 people spoke on the subject of commercial solar facilities.

Most of these individuals asked the commission to ban commercial solar developments and transmission easements, whether above or below ground, within the two-mile jurisdiction.

Their concerns included property values, preserving attractiveness of city gateways, length of leases, potential toxicity of solar panels, questions about the dependability of solar energy, and loss of land that could be used for other purposes.

“Whether you are more for housing growth out in this area or for preserving farm ground, the one thing that those two things have in common is that large-scale commercial solar is competition for that,” said Matt Carothers, who is a member of Bartholomew County Citizens Concerned about Commercial Solar Fields.

However, there were also a couple of individuals who said that more stringent regulations would affect their rights as property owners and ability to earn income by leasing land for commercial solar.

“You guys are basically, depending on your decisions, taking away potential income, guaranteed income for us,” said Lois Bonnell. “And we do not have guaranteed income as farmers. We are at the mercy of weather, the market prices, lots of things.”

Other speakers also noted that land that is temporarily leased for solar developments can eventually revert to being farmland, whereas land developed for housing would be more permanently affected.

Commission member Amber Porter said that while it’s challenging to find a perfect solution, she hopes that the two-mile jurisdiction limit and waiver process through city council meets both parties’ needs.

“In the four years I’ve spent on city council, city council in general is very pro-development,” said Bush. “They’re pretty open-minded. We want this city to grow and develop. … It’s really not a ban, because there may be portions of the county or portions of the two-mile jurisdiction that maybe that is the high and best use of that land.”

In such instances, he could see the council granting an exemption.

In addition to the changes around solar energy, other proposed amendments to the zoning ordinance touch on topics such as manufactured housing, accessory dwellings and electrical vehicle charging stations.

The proposed section on EV charging states, “Electric vehicle charging spaces shall be required in association with newly constructed or expanded multifamily residential uses, hotels, and parking lots / garages (where that lot or garage is a primary use), that provide 25 or more parking spaces, at a minimum ratio of 1 charging space for every 50 total parking spaces provided, rounded up to the nearest whole charging space.

Where to learn more

A draft of the proposed zoning ordinance changes — not including the revisions approved by the plan commission — is available at

Agendas and meeting materials for upcoming Columbus City Council meetings can be found at