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Let there be light

The county officially has its first-ever solar ordinance.

After months of discussion, members of the Knox County Commissioners on Tuesday opted not to make any additional changes to the legislation and approve it as is.

“Light the county up,” quipped commissioner Trent Hinkle to which the whole room whooped in excitement.

The development of a new solar ordinance — one that will now regulate the construction of solar farms here — has been in the works for months.

Kent Utt, former CEO of the Knox County Development Corp. who now serves as a consultant for Tenaska, a Nebraska-based solar company looking to build here, has been on the sidelines for all of it, gently nudging local officials along the way.

So he was thrilled to finally see the commissioners approve the legislation on second and third readings Tuesday.

“Thank you,” he told the commissioners. “Thank you for taking this on. I know it’s been delayed through all of this COVID stuff; we really started dialogue about this a long time ago.

“But in the end, we’re going to have one heck of good project, one that will benefit the county in so many ways, both financial and environmental.”

Utt went on to call it an “evolutionary deal,” one that will likely make Knox County a leader in Indiana in terms of solar development as Tenaska is looking to build a solar farm valued at $110 million in southern Knox County.

Utt said to look for an official announcement from Tenaska, now that the ordinance is finally compete, as early as today.

The commissioners approved the solar ordinance on first reading in July then it went to members of the Area Plan Commission — the enforcing agency — for review.

They gave it a favorable recommendation — following a change in the buffer zone, or the area between a solar farm and the next-nearest structure, from 100 feet to 200 feet — but other concerns were raised at that meeting from solar developers themselves.

Dan Farrell, a project development manager with Miami-based Origis Energy, for instance, wanted to lessen the financial burden on solar companies by delaying the establishment of a decommissioning security bond — or getting rid of it altogether.

And Utt asked the county to consider allowing for a preliminary permit, of sorts, so solar companies aren’t out hundreds of thousands of dollars in engineering costs only to see the county decline an application later.

But after meeting in special session last week, the commissioners decided no further changes were necessary — that the concerns expressed by the solar energy companies can be addressed simply by interpreting the ordinance one way or another.

“We believe (the existing ordinance) adequate because it really came down to interpretation as opposed to needing to change the ordinance itself,” said commission president Kellie Streeter.

Colt Michaels, executive director of the APC, following that meeting last week, drafted a memorandum to inquiring solar companies more plainly spelling out the ordinances’ procedures.

That document, at least for Tenaska, Utt said, cleared the air. Michaels’ memo, he said, was “spot on” and offered “good clarity” on the issues at hand.

The commissioners also last week expressed concern that the ordinance didn’t include language that would protect the county from environmental hazards, specifically metal left in the soil.

Barnes and Thornburg, the Indianapolis law firm helping to draft the legislation, advised the commissioners that isn’t something typically included in other Hoosier solar ordinances.

Streeter, too, said upon further investigation, those are regulations already handled by organizations like the Department of Natural Resources and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

“So we can’t supersede any of their environmental rules,” she said. “DNR and IDEM should handle everything in regards to environmental concerns.

“Us including that language might make us feel better, but we aren’t the regulatory agency to enforce it.”

So, in the end, the commissioners moved to approve the ordinance just as it is, meaning that with the APC’s favorable recommendation already in hand, it can take effect immediately.

Streeter also reported that a committee of county council members has also been actively working with Tenaska behind the scenes in terms of some kind of tax abatement deal.

That deal, too, is likely to include an Economic Development Agreement, one that could allow for federal dollars set aside for communities who invest in solar technology to pass through to county officials.

Those details have yet to be ironed out, but Streeter said discussions are “forging ahead” and “going well.”

“More to report on that soon,” she said.

As cooler temperatures move into the area, Allen Like of Vincennes stops to enjoy the outdoor seating at the Knox County Public Library in Vincennes. Temperatures are expected to remain mild, with highs in the lowers 80s or even upper 70s, well into next week.


Furniture folly?

The final touches are being placed on the Pantheon: A Business and Innovation Theatre as the shared work space and small business incubator is set to be finished later this month.

Members of the Pantheon Board, the 5-member group overseeing construction, on Tuesday during their regular monthly meeting approved the purchase of $135,000 in furniture.

The contract, which was presented to the board by Pantheon executive director Nichole Like, was actually for just over $142,000, but board member and city councilman Brian Grove balked a bit at paying for all of it.

The Pantheon Board had budgeted just $135,000 for furniture as part of the $2.4 million overall cost.

Grove took issue with the fact that the furniture contract was over budget by $8,000 but, more so, because it was being awarded to an Indianapolis designer, Commercial Office Environments.

“We’re going out of town for this?” Grove asked Like.

Grove went on to argue that there were local companies who could design the same kind of furniture but were never given an opportunity to submit a bid.

“This is a good chunk of change not to be local,” he said.

But both Like and Pantheon Board member Steve Miller, who has actively been involved in construction, said the designs are very sophisticated.

They were done by Christopher Blice with Blice Edwards, commercial artists in Indinapolis.

Blice is from Vincennes originally, Like told the board, and has been active both in the design process and has offered his assistance in restoring some murals inside the historic theater later.

This furniture, she explained, was designed specifically for the building, and Blice used his connections with Commercial Office Environments to get a discount.

Miller, too, said they worked with architects with Myszak and Palmer Architecture and Development, Vincennes, on finding a local company to do the same work but “didn’t come up with anything acceptable.”

This contract, he said, is a “far superior outcome to anything we saw before.”

Like added that they had “striven at every point to use local firms,” during the project; the overall contract was awarded to Wolfe Construction, and many of the sub-contractors, like D&H Glass, have been local as well.

“We wanted commercial furniture that would last us decades, not years,” she said.

Like also argued that the work Blice has done for free has likely saved the project “tens of thousands of dollars” so far.

Even still, Grove didn’t like it.

“There will be questions I have to answer to,” he said. “When I’m voting to spend this kind of money, I want it to be spent here.”

Miller countered that while the budget “should be respected, so, too, should the amount of hours people have put into this project.”

“We did try through our contractors and architects and take their suggestions on who to use,” he said. “But the progress was not sufficient.

“So we went to someone who could get it done and did get it done.”

Anticipating that there would be overages, officials with the Pantheon operating board — a separate, larger board set up to oversee daily operations once the Pantheon is up and running — sought a private donor to cover the $8,000.

“So it won’t fall back on you,” Like told the board. “We have private funding that will take care of that.

“That will not be the responsibility of this board,” she reiterated.

Like added that all furniture planned for the Pantheon’s entryway was removed from the bid package, which offered a savings of $4,000.

“We just decided to wait on that,” she said.

The furniture contract includes everything from desks and chairs to filing cabinets and even conference tables and private meeting cubicles.

There is also a “3-D room” for which there is not yet any furniture.

The city, on behalf of the project, is seeking a federal grant to help pay for an exterior restoration of the Pantheon at 428 Main St. Also included in that grant, Like said, is equipment for that room, things like a 3-D printer, laser cutting machines and even a commercial-grade sewing machine.

“And if we don’t get the grant, we will rethink how to move forward with that,” she said.

Like had hoped to hear about the Economic Development Administration grant this summer, but announcements were likely delayed due to COVID, she said.

That total project cost — which also includes everything from new gutters to tuck-pointing and a new marquee — is $915,000.

When finished, the Pantheon will feature an open shared work space on its main floor as well as an event space on the former stage.

The second floor will have rentable office space, and the former balcony is being transformed into a lecture space.

The Pantheon is set to also have direct ties to Purdue University, specifically its Foundry, a large shared workspace in West Lafayette.

Courthouse to be closed Friday in memory of Johanningsmeier

The Knox County Commissioners, in an attempt to honor the late Superior Court II Judge Ryan Johanningsmeier, will close the courthouse on Friday to allow county employees to attend his anticipated funeral.

“There’s really nothing we could do, not near enough, to honor him,” said commission president Kellie Streeter during an emotional address to start the commissioners meeting Tuesday morning.

“But I do think a closure of our facilities, so all county employees can go and honor him on that day, is the least that we could do.”

Streeter said she had already reached out to the other two county judges — Superior Court I Judge Gara Lee and Circuit Court Judge Sherry Gregg-Gilmore — to encourage them to clear their schedules for Friday as well.

Knox County officials announced Saturday morning that Johanningsmeier, who took office in 2016, is presumed dead following a plane crash in rural Lawrence County, Illinois.

Local officials say in the early morning hours Saturday, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office received a call about an overdue plane that should have landed at the Mid American Air Center in Lawrenceville, Illinois.

Police say Johanningsmeier stopped in Sullivan County to fuel up before taking off again.

Law enforcement in Sullivan and Lawrence County, Illinois, began a search, and around 7:30 a.m. another pilot reported what they believed was wreckage about two miles north of the Mid American Air Center.

The Federal Aviation Administration continues to investigate the accident, but it’s likely fog may have played a factor in the crash as local officials say the Indiana State Police helicopter was requested as part of the search but, due to weather conditions, couldn’t be used.

Johanningsmeier had been flying for about two years, friends say.

No official funeral arrangements had been announced as of Tuesday evening.

Members of the Republican Party, too, will soon begin the search to find a candidate to replace Johanningsmeier on the ballot; he was up for re-election in November but was unopposed.

Any local attorney interested in the elected position need first file the appropriate paperwork with the state then letters of interest are due to Republican Party Chairman Linda Painter by 5 p.m. on Friday.

Republican Party officers will conduct interviews and select a candidate to fill the slot on the ballot. They hope to have that decided by next week.

Candidates do not have to be Republican to seek the office, but officials have said they will look for someone interested in maintaining the county’s drug court program, which Johanningsmeier built over the last four years.

In other business, the commissioners on Tuesday voted to hire Elite Environmental, Evansville, to clean up and dispose of some asbestos tile in the basement of the old poor farm.

The contract is for $3,828.

The commissioners this spring voted to give the deed to the 140-year-old Victorian building on Hart Street Road to Andy and Angie Barmes, a contractor and local nurse.

The two have said they plan to transform it into a hospice house.

Commissioner Trent Hinkle said the deed hasn’t yet been handed over to the couple.

“Before we do that, we need to clean this up,” he said of the asbestos tile. “That way, we’ve done our due diligence in this matter.”

The commissioners have indicated they may offer additional financial help as well.

During a recent budget planing session, they spoke briefly of doing so with the county’s share of Economic Development Income Tax dollars.

Every year, the commissioners come up with a detailed plan — a kind of budget within a budget — to spend those monies, a plan that the county council will have to eventually approve.

They’d like to designate at least some money in the 2021 EDIT plan to help the Barmeses to replace the building’s roof, which has fallen into a state of serious disrepair. The commissioners argue they’re at least party to blame as no maintenance has been done in years.

They also spoke of giving to the couple an estimated $40,000, money from an insurance settlement on the poor farm back in 2008 after a severe storm damaged the roof.

Initially, the commissioners thought to give Barmes upwards of $250,000 to make repairs. They were going to take the request before the county council for consideration, but several council members quickly said, although not publicly, that they likely wouldn’t be on board with such an expenditure.

It’s likely to be an item discussed at upcoming county budget hearings, scheduled for later this month.