Council makes changes and gives first reading approval to zoning ordinance for solar

COLUMBUS, Ind. — Local leaders are moving toward essentially prohibiting commercial solar facilities in the city and its extended jurisdiction.

Columbus City Council voted Tuesday to approve the first reading of changes to the city’s zoning ordinance, but with a significant revision to the draft sent forward by the Columbus Plan Commission.

The amendment, which was proposed by Councilman Frank Miller, strikes a section that lists commercial solar energy systems (CSES) as a conditional use in the Agriculture: Preferred (AP) and Agricultural: General Rural (AG) zoning districts.

Planning officials define CSES as systems that capture and convert solar energy into electricity for the primary purpose of selling this energy for use in locations other than the site at which it is generated.

Miller said that while he is not against solar power, he wants to protect the city’s opportunities for future growth.

“We can’t change what the county has done with their ordinance,” he said. “There’s still a lot of acres of county property out there that can be leased that just doesn’t encroach onto the city’s jurisdiction. And that’s my main thing, is making sure that we are protecting the city’s jurisdiction and the outlook and the long-range look for growth of the city.”

At present, CSES are a conditional use in the AP district and are prohibited elsewhere, city/county planning director Jeff Bergman said in a previous interview.

The city’s zoning ordinance says any use that is not listed as a permitted use or a conditional use in a district is generally considered prohibited.

“The Planning Director may determine into which category any questionable use is placed if it is not specifically listed but is similar to another use that is a permitted or a conditional use,” the ordinance adds. “This determination may be appealed to the Board of Zoning Appeals.”

“A use variance is always a possibility,” Bergman said, in regards to uses that are not listed as permitted or conditional. “It is provided for in state law and our zoning ordinance. So there’s nothing in zoning regulation that’s absolute. There’s always an appeal path. And in the case of those sort of use categories, it is always possible for someone to seek a use variance to try and get allowed some use that’s not otherwise permitted at a particular location, and that’s through the Board of Zoning Appeals.”

Any item explicitly listed as a conditional use must be authorized by either the 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.

Prior to the change by city council, the plan commission proposed to have CSES be a conditional use in the AP and AG districts, while still being prohibited in all others.

The commission also proposed regulations for CSES that generally mirrored the ordinance for Bartholomew County.

However, while the county regulations state that solar fields must be at least a half-mile away from municipal boundary lines, the city plan commission’s draft stated that solar fields could not be located in areas that lie within the city’s planning jurisdiction but are outside of city limits.

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.

Under the plan commission’s proposal, exceptions to the setback standards for commercial solar would be allowed with a waiver from the affected entities, which is also the case in the county. For 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 commission recommended a process involving the mayor’s office and council, with the latter considering waivers on a case-by-case basis, Bergman said.

However, he said that, after reviewing the proposed draft with legal counsel, it was found that there might be potential risks for litigation that arise from having a waiver option that serves as an alternative to the established BZA variance process.

In any case, Miller’s amendment makes this a moot point, as the proposed standards and setbacks for CSES will be deleted from the zoning ordinance updates under the change, assuming the revised version is approved on a second reading.

“It renders all of that irrelevant, because those facilities just aren’t permitted, so there’s no need for setback exceptions or waivers or those kind of things,” Bergman said.

About 20 individuals spoke during the time for public comment at Tuesday’s council meeting. Several were opposed to having solar farms in the two-mile jurisdiction, but a few also spoke out in favor of less regulation.

Moving forward, the zoning ordinance changes will need a second reading to be fully approved. The council’s next meeting is set for Nov. 8.