Columbus Board of Zoning Appeals approves solar proposal on split vote

This story has been updated

The Columbus Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday night voted to approve Carina Solar’s request for a conditional use permit with conditions with a 3-2 vote. The approval would allow a solar power generation facility on 795 acres of land in Columbus Township.

Board members Grant Hale, Charlie Hammon and Michael Kinder voted in favor. Board members Zack Ellison and Charles Doup voted against.

This comes after the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals denied Carina Solar a conditional use permit to allow a commercial solar energy system (CSES) on 1,124 acres under county jurisdiction on Monday night.

Carina Solar, LLC, a subsidiary of Samsung’s C&T, submitted the application for a conditional use permit to construct, operate and maintain a proposed 100 megawatt AC power generation facility. It would be placed on 48 parcels of scattered cultivated agricultural fields leased to the company by 24 local landowners.

Now, Carina will apply for a zoning compliance certificate— a site plan review process that is done administratively by the planning department. Staff will essentially confirm that the requirements of the zoning ordinance have been met.

Carina will submit the following to obtain the zoning compliance certificate:

  • A project description
  • Conceptual site plan
  • Preliminary drainage plan
  • Conceptual groundcover plan

Carina will have the opportunity to submit another application to get the conditional use permit for land in the county next year, Columbus/Bartholomew County Planning Director Jeff Bergman told The Republic. There is also a rule that would allow the county board of zoning appeals to docket the application sooner with a majority vote.

Both swaths of land were a part of the project which includes multiple parcels totaling approximately 1,883 acres located generally south of County Road 100S, west of County Road 525E, east of South Gladstone Avenue and north of county road 400S in Columbus Township.

The 795 acres that were in question on Tuesday night are located generally south of County Road 100S, west of U.S. 31, east of South Gladstone Avenue, and north of County Road 300S.

Public comment during the meeting lasted over two hours once again where more than 20 representatives from nonprofit Bartholomew County Citizens Concerned about Commercial Solar Fields (B4CSF) gave a presentation where they outlined why they believed Carina did not meet the required conditions for conditional approval.

Concerns those in opposition to the facility had included the negative impact they said the solar facility would have on property values and worries that the farm land the facility would be located on would be irreparably harmed.

Many also were concerned about what they viewed as potential drainage issues, the sound of the facility, and the close proximity to nearby St. Paul Lutheran Early Childhood ministry. Resident Doug Roxbury also said that he believed the facility would encroach of the habitat of bald eagles.

The following conditions were included as a part of the conditional use permit approval:

  • The facility shall comply with the adopted Bartholomew County Commercial Solar Energy System Standards, including the documents required for permitting, the decommissioning and site restoration plan, and road use and maintenance agreement
  • The design and layout of the facility shall provide locations for all needed panels, equipment, and associated facilities, including the switchyard and collector substation (and including those to be constructed and/or operated by other entities) outside of all mapped floodways
  • The setbacks from schools be increased from 200 to 500 feet
  • There will be no sound from the facility on non-participating property lines
  • There be a study to determine how the facility could affect bald eagle habitat in the area

Columbus City Council adopted regulations that would’ve prohibited commercial solar energy systems in fall of 2023, but Carina Solar’s project was allowed to proceed because it was submitted prior to the new regulations.

The application was filed with the planning department on Dec. 13. At the time, the Columbus Zoning Ordinance classified the proposed use as a power generation facility, which is listed as a conditional use the Agriculture Preferred zoning district.

The zoning ordinance defines a power generation facility as “a commercial facility that produces usable electricity by harnessing any array of resources including fossil fuels, water, wind, and solar sources.”

In county jurisdiction, the proposed use would be considered a commercial energy system with specific standards that apply. Carina had indicated they were going to align with the county standards in the city as well.

Planning staff found that Carina had complied with the setbacks and other standards required in county jurisdiction.

The city and county BZA utilize a specific four-point criteria of development standards when making decisions on requests for conditional use approvals.

  • The project will not be injurious to the public health, safety and general welfare of the community.
  • The development will be consistent with the intent of the development standards established by the Zoning Ordinance for similar uses.
  • The conditional use will not be contrary to the general purposes service by the Zoning Ordinance, and will not permanently injure other property or uses in the same zoning district and vicinity.
  • The condition use will be consistent with the character of the zoning district in which it is located and the recommendations of the comprehensive plan.

The county board of zoning appeals decided to deny because they said Carina did not meet criteria number four.

The preliminary recommendation from planning staff on the 795 acres of city land was to deny the application, also based on criteria number four not being met.

The reason for this, planning staff said, was because the recent proposed JOLI Development annexation “suggests city growth toward this area may be a near-term, rather than a very long-term or only conceptual possibility.”

The Columbus Plan Commission voted to forward no recommendation to the city council on JOLI’s proposed annexation of nearly 300 acres along the north and south sides of State Street, between Fairview Drive and 250 East on Feb. 15.

Because the power generation facility would be located “in a growth area that would be encumbered for minimally 30 years from any future residential, commercial, or industrial growth,” staff deemed the facility would not be consistent with the comprehensive plan.

Board member Charles Doup made the first motion to deny the application because he said the applicants did not satisfy criteria number four and the facility would “prevent Columbus and the plan department options in the future.”

Doup’s motion died after not receiving a second.

Samsung C&T Director of Land Sean Cavanagh was asked by board member Zach Ellison why none of the 24 property owners who agreed to lease their land for the project were at the meeting to speak in favor. Cavanagh said he had conversations with several who said they didn’t feel comfortable doing so.

“I’m not sure if you saw the video last night, it was pretty rambunctious, there was large applause and you know, straight up, they told me they were very intimidated.”

Board member Grant Hale made a motion to approve, saying all four criteria had been met. Hale said number four was met because according to the site plan, 763 acres of the total 1,883 acres would have solar panels, equating to less than 40 percent of the land.

“The proposed project will indeed be consistent with the character of the agricultural preferred zoning district in that approximately 50% or more of the land will be still farmable,” Hale said.

Carina had said if both conditional use permits were approved, they would plan to begin construction during the second quarter of 2025.