Split decisions on solar farms produce two lawsuits

A crowd gathers to comment about a proposed solar farm facility during a zoning hearing in Bartholomew County in February.

Dueling lawsuits have been filed after the City of Columbus approved zoning for portions of a large solar farm in the city’s jurisdiction and Bartholomew County denied zoning approval for portions in its jurisdiction.

California-based Carina Solar LLC, a division of Samsung C&T, sought a conditional use permit to build a solar farm on about 1,880 acres of land leased from more than two dozen local landowners. After hearings just days apart before the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals and the Columbus BZA in February, the county denied the application on roughly 1,100 acres, but the city approved the application on about 800 acres.

Neither the company nor landowners who oppose the solar farm were happy, and now, both are pursuing their legal remedies in Bartholomew County courts.

On March 26, Carina Solar sued the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals after the BZA rejected its application in February. That denial applied to the portions of the proposed farm under county zoning jurisdiction.

On March 27, a group of more than two dozen landowners who oppose the solar farm plan sued the Columbus BZA. The landowners, under the umbrella of Sunny Horizons LLC, challenged the approval of portions of the solar farm within city zoning jurisdiction.

The proposed solar farm includes multiple parcels of land leased from individual owners 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.

Carina Solar claims in its suit that the county BZA’s denial of an application for a conditional use permit to build the farm “is, among other things, arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with the law … and unsupported by substantial evidence.

“Carina Solar requests that the Court enter an order reversing the BZA’s decision and directing the BZA to approve Carina Solar’s Application,” the suit says.

Carina argues in its suit that “The County BZA … relied upon substantially the same evidence as the City BZA and considered the same criteria for approval of a conditional use,” but “reached a different and inconsistent decision as the City BZA.”

Carina’s suit was filed in Bartholomew Circuit Court, after which Judge Kelly Benjamin recused herself, citing a conflict of interest. Decatur Superior Court Judge Matthew Bailey was appointed special judge on April 2 and will hear the case.

Meanwhile, the Sunny Horizons suit presents a petition signed by 29 plaintiffs who assert the city BZA ruling approving the application is “arbitrary and capricious, unsupported by substantial evidence, not in accordance with the law, in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority or limitations … and without observance of procedure required by law.

The landowners “respectfully request that the Court grant this Verified Petition for Judicial Review, reverse the BZA Decision, and provide all other just and proper relief.”

The suit was filed in Bartholomew Superior Court 2, where Judge Jonathan Rohde also recused himself. Multiple judges since have declined appointment to preside in the case. Jennings County Magistrate Judge Christopher Doran was asked Wednesday to assume jurisdiction.

Carina Solar is represented by attorneys from Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP in Indianapolis. The Sunny Horizon plaintiffs are represented by Fort Wayne attorney Jason Kuchmay.

Last week, Judge Bailey declined Carina Solar’s motion to consolidate both cases. Carina has filed a motion asking Bailey to reconsider.

In both of the cases, defendants have filed answers defending their positions and asserting affirmative defenses. No further hearing dates have been set in either matter.