A newly-proposed solar ordinance continued its evolution Tuesday as members of the Knox County Commissioners made even more changes, including reversing one made earlier by members of the Area Plan Commission.
The commissioners, in particular, took issue with a decision made by the APC last month to require any solar structure be located at least 300 feet from any other structure, whether it be a house, a garage or even a cell phone tower.
The APC changed it from 100 feet, which was originally proposed by Indianapolis law firm Barnes and Thornburg, to 300 feet — and the commissioners thought it simply too much.
Instead, they amended the ordinance to reflect a compromise of a lesser 200 feet.
“You can amend it and send it back to us,” said APC chairman and county surveyor Dick Vermillion with a shrug of his shoulders. “Then you can come to area plan and debate it with the members who were in support of 300 feet.
“But, ultimately, the decision is yours.”
The APC discussed changing the buffer — the distance between the solar structure and the nearest structure to it — at length last month, and the majority of members thought the 100 feet recommended by Barnes and Thornburg, the firm hired by the commissioners to draft the ordinance, not enough to protect neighboring land owners, especially ones who aren’t benefiting financially from a lease with the solar company.
“The biggest reason for us was to make sure that no adjoining properties — whether they are (lease) participating properties or not — were adversely affected,” Vermillion said.
The APC is an “experienced commission,” he added, with “situations where (100 feet) may not work.”
“The best example is if a property is a rental house, and the owner of the property negotiates with the solar farm company to put (solar) structures 50 feet from the house,” he said.
“So then who is there defending the rights of the tenant?” Vermillion said.
APC executive director Colt Michaels, who drafted a large portion of the proposed ordinance by looking to other Indiana counties with a solar ordinance, said they understood the potential burden a 300 feet requirement could place on the petitioner.
So to mitigate it, they got rid of a portion of the original ordinance that would, as is customary, require the petitioner to take a variance request — a request to lessen the buffer — to the Board of Zoning Appeals for approval, a process that requires yet another public hearing and much more time.
“Instead, we changed it to where the APC could consider that variance itself,” Michaels said.
“So you wouldn’t have the time delays,” noted commissioner Tim Ellerman.
“Correct,” Michaels responded. “They can do it all in the same meeting. We tried to offer a counter balance that would relieve that burden.”
Commission president Kellie Streeter said she thought 300 feet too much to ask of these solar companies. Most solar farms are built on vacant farm ground, sometimes even river bottoms, she said.
“It’s not like they’re out building in subdivisions,” she said.
Commissioners, too, thought the inconveniences brought about by living close to a solar farm minimal.
“To me, 300 feet sounds like overkill,” said commissioner Trent Hinkle, also noting that the ordinance requires a kind of “vegetative screen” planted between the panels and nearby structures as well.
Hinkle, too, pointed out that 300 feet, in most cases, is equivalent to a city block.
“I understand the argument,” Michaels said, adding that most other solar ordinances he looked to include a buffer of 200 feet.
Also of note, Michaels said the mandatory buffer for something like a turkey farm is 500 feet.
“And we don’t know if a solar farm is more or less intrusive,” argued Vermillion. “It’s new technology.”
The commissioners, however, didn’t agree.
“I haven’t gone down to take a big whiff of air down by a solar farm yet, but I’m guessing it’s not as bad,” Ellerman quipped.
“I would assume the effects are minimal compared to others,” Streeter added.
Kent Utt, former president of the Knox County Development Corp., is acting as a consultant for Tenaska, the Nebraska-based solar developer looking to build a $110 million solar farm in southern Knox County.
He just asked, on behalf of Tenaska, that county officials consider adding language to the ordinance that would allow lease holders to waive the buffer, regardless of what it ends up being.
“If landowners agree, the participating ones,” Utt clarified, to which county officials said nothing in response.
The commissioners also on Tuesday voted to amend a portion of the solar ordinance that mentions a possible Economic Development Agreement between the county and the solar company to make clear that any such measure would require both the commissioners and the county council’s approval.
Tenaska is looking for a 10-year tax abatement, which would phase in 100% of the personal and property taxes on the solar farm over a 10-year period, thereby easing the up-front financial burden.
But it’s also possible the county could see a financial incentive as well, specifically in the form of federal dollars paid out to communities for the development of clean energy.
Both would require an Economic Development Agreement between the two.
County council members last week took issue with language in the original ordinance that, they feared, made such an agreement a done deal with the passing of the legislation by the commissioners.
Streeter said council members didn’t want to be forced into such an agreement whether it benefited the county or not.
Streeter reached out to the legal firm that drafted the ordinance to see why the language was included; it’s a standard clause in solar ordinances, she said, because these companies, since these farms don’t create many jobs, look to offer a one-time payment to the counties in which they locate.
“These are big investments, create a big increase in assessed valuation,” Streeter said, “but not a lot of jobs.
“They usually ask for tax abatements, but tax abatements are always tied to jobs. So how do we get the biggest bang for our buck besides the (increase) in assessed valuation? That’s why the EDA is included.”
Streeter called it a kind of “stimulus payment” made to the county, money that could be spent on infrastructure improvements, for instance, although no one has mentioned how much it could be.
Either way, striking the Economic Development Agreement must have approval from both the council and the commissioners, as does into which fund this money could be placed. And there would be direct oversight from the State Board of Accounts, pointed out county attorney Andrew Porter.
“ I don’t want it to seem that we’re at odds over a matter that is of great benefit to the county,” Streeter said, suggesting they change the language in the ordinance to make the council’s involvement more clear.
Ellerman agreed, saying he “didn’t want to step on any toes.”