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APC hears from residents in favor of, against proposed solar development

Dozens of southeastern Knox County residents on Tuesday gathered at a meeting of the Area Plan Commission to hear details on a proposed solar development in Harrison Township.

And several made it crystal clear they don’t want solar panels in their backyards.

Travis Vories was the first to take to the podium during the pubic comment portion of the APC’s meeting, held at Vincennes Water Utilities’ Drinking Water Plant so as to allow for greater social distancing.

Seven years ago, he told the commissioners, he bought his dream home on Dutch Hinkle Road, one he’d been eyeing since he was 16 years old.

“And if you’d told me seven years ago it was now going to be surrounded by solar panels, I wouldn’t have bought it,” he said, arguing against the solar developers’ evidence-based claims that the existence of solar panels does nothing to decrease home values.

“I don’t believe that for a second,” he said.

Vories also worried, he said, about what the solar panels would do to wildlife habitats, especially those that have only recently begun to flourish.

“That habitat you’re about to cover up or destroy or whatever,” he alleged, “we haven’t had bald eagles or river otters or bobcats at there in years, and they’ve just now returned.

“That’s prime habitat for them.”

Likewise, Janet Houchin, who lives on Indina 61 in Monroe City, said she built her home 28 years ago; she’s raised three kids there, she said.

The land owners that have leased with the solar development team will profit financially, she said, “but what about the homeowners?”

“There are a lot of new homes that have been built out there in the last five years,” she told the commissioners. “Many of them have small children in them. And they don’t want to raise them around glass panels.

“Maybe they won’t hurt me,” she said, “but I didn’t build my house so I could look at solar panels in my front and backyard.

“Put yourself in my place.”

The public comment was part of a public hearing hosted by the APC regarding application for the proposed development, a $110 million solar farm dubbed RATTS 2 being taken on by Tenaska, a Nebraska-based solar company, and Capital Dynamics, the company that will oversee construction and management.

The solar duo has filed the necessary paperwork with the APC to secure a zoning change; it’s the first in several required steps before the they can be awarded the proper permits and, with them, the green light to begin construction.

Tenaska has leased about 2,800 acres of land for the project. Actual construction has been proposed for just 1,250 of that, an area perimetered by roads that include Lucky Point, South Petersburg, Burke and Governors, among others.

But it’s not one large area, as many expected, but rather multiple areas — some large, others small, and they’re not contiguous.

And while many Tuesday night said they weren’t aware of the solar development, elected officials have been discussing it publicly for nearly a year as they took up the drafting of a zoning ordinance specifically targeting solar development in Knox County.

Tenaska had entered into talks with landowners in Harrison Township, so the county commissioners and Area Plan Commission figured they should get out ahead of any actual proposals, making sure the county and its residents were protected.

The county commissioners and the APC, as well as a third-party law firm, spent months drafting the ordinance, painstakingly going over every detail, from buffer zones to setbacks and even decommissioning bonds.

The zoning ordinance was finally approved by the APC and the commissioners this fall.

Representatives with Tenaska and Capital Dynamics kicked off Tuesday’s public hearing — most of them attending virtually due to COVID-19 — and went over many of their proposal’s details.

Part of their presentation, too, was meant to appease upset residents before tempers flared.

Aaron Branam, vice-president of development and construction for Capital Dynamics, said both companies have “deep experience with construction projects that happily coexist in rural communities.”

Extensive storm water drainage plans, for instance, must be submitted to and approved by both local and state officials.

The county’s ordinance requires a 200-foot buffer between any solar panels or associated facility and the nearest structure, and additional screens will be put in place in many areas as well, officials with Tenaska and Capital Dynamics said.

The team, too, said basic communications — things like cell phone and radio signals — will not be impeded as a result of the solar panels, which are about 15 feet tall.

The development team, too, pointed out that the solar project would have a $1 million positive impact per year on local GDP; the project would also result in about $1 million more paid out per year in lease payments to land owners.

As part of the agreement with the county, the solar team must also sign a road use agreement, one that ensures the repair and restoration of roads used during construction once the project is complete.

In addition, Mary Solada, the team’s legal representation, pointed to the decommissioning bond, the perimeters for which is addressed by the county’s ordinance.

“At no time will the county or the county’s taxpayers be at risk for any decommissioning of the site,” she said, “whether it’s ten years from now or, hopefully, 35 years from now.

Solada, too, said that solar fields are “quiet neighbors” with no need for government services like sanitary sewer infrastructure or water supply.

There is little, if any, traffic to and from the site once construction is complete, she told the large crowd, and multiple studies, she said, citing a handful specifically, have shown that solar fields have no negative long-term impact to property values.

And once the solar field is decommissioned — meaning the solar panels are removed and the ground is returned to its original state — the ground can be farmed once again.

“It can be available for farming by future generations,” she said.

And should this project be approved, county elected officials would benefit, too.

The county council in October approved an Economic Development Agreement between the solar duo and the county. The commissioners soon followed.

The deal struck allows for a ten-year tax abatement — one that essentially forgives 100% of the personal and property taxes on any improvements made to the land.

In return, $2.5 million will be paid to the county in “economic development payments,” ones made by Tenaska and Capital Dynamics, the partnership taking on the solar project, over a six-year period.

The county, too, is expected to see additional tax benefits totaling some $16 million over the expected 35-year life of the solar farm.

And at least some elected officials have said they would like to see a portion of the money go toward improving roads in that area.

Commissioners take 'baby step' approach to jail expansion

The commissioners on Tuesday took yet another step toward expanding the Knox County Jail.

The commissioners, in their first meeting of the month held at the Pantheon, 428 Main St., voted to enter into yet another contract with Vincennes’ RQAW, this time for the preliminary design of a jail expansion, one that could also house both the county’s probation department and community corrections program.

The contract with RQAW is for $150,000 and will cover the cost of a very basic and preliminary design, the commissioners noted, one that will lay the ground work for a more detailed design later.

“This is the next step in moving forward,” said commission president Trent Hinkle. “Once this preliminary design results in a more thorough scope of work, additional agreements and contracts will be needed.

“This is a baby step approach,” he said.

Hinkle, too, was careful to say that hiring RQAW now for a preliminary design doesn’t mean they will automatically be awarded the contract for a full and final design later.

Lara Dawson, an architect with RQAW, told the commissioners Tuesday that they were “looking forward to getting started.”

They, too, looked at the preliminary design phase as “the next stepping stone” in the overall process.

In short, a preliminary design is needed because there are so many unanswered questions in terms of how the county wants to move forward, Dawson explained.

It also carries the potential to be an exceptionally large project.

So without better direction, a final design isn’t possible — not yet anyway.

As part of the preliminary design, RQAW will help the county determine how best to move forward. For instance, they don’t necessarily have to proceed with the traditional design — bid — build method, where they hire an architect to design the project, let it out for bid and then award the contract to the lowest bidder.

With a project of this scope and size, there are other options, such as hiring a contractor first to assist with every step of the process, often looking for cost savings along the way.

“There are several ways to go about this,” she said.

The county, too, has not yet named a budget, which is what most architects base the final design contract on.

“And this will help to determine that as well,” she said.

Dawson, too, said that should RQAW be selected by the county to move forward with a final design, that contract would likely be less due to the work completed in this preliminary first step.

Commissioner Kellie Streeter agreed that a lot of questions must be answered before they can move forward with any final design contract.

County officials aren’t yet sure what kind of project they want to do — or, perhaps, if they want to do it at all.

“So we need to first figure all that out, drill down, and decide what is best,” she said.

County councilman Rich Chattin sat in the audience at the Pantheon as the commissioners approved the contract.

“I’m just glad we’re moving forward,” he said.

Also as part of this process, the commissioners last month formed a jail committee, one whose members will now work closely with RQAW on the preliminary design.

It’s been months since county elected officials first began talks of a jail expansion; it’s been more than a year since the county council voted to reinstate the jail tax at a rate of 0.2% to raise the money needed, or about $1.2 million per year.

But then the pandemic hit, and talks have largely stalled — until recently.

Making up the committee is commissioner T.J. Brink as well as two members of the county council, one “lay person” chosen by the commissioners themselves as well as one representative each from the jail, the county’s probation department and community corrections.

Its first meeting is expected early next week, the commissioners said.

The commissioners last year hired RQAW to take a look at the future needs of the Knox County Jail. In presenting those findings this summer, RQAW recommended a $32 million expansion, specifically the construction of an additional pod — more than doubling the jail’s current bed capacity — as well as a new, adjacent structure to house community corrections.

Adding a pod to the jail at 2375 S. Old Decker Road would increase capacity to as many as 520 total beds.

The jail opened in 2007 to house 200 inmates, but it’s consistently been over capacity since.

Architects with RQAW told the commissioners this summer that local jail stays are on the rise, not because admissions are increasing — they actually decreased in 2019, the study said — but because inmate crimes are more severe, thereby resulting in longer stays.

The jail has been consistently short on beds, architects said, since 2010. It’s over-capacity even with local inmates.

If you eliminate the housing of federal inmates — the county takes in as much as $2 million a year for housing federal inmates — it would still be too small, architects said.

Projections showed that the jail would need as many as 600 beds in 20 years, if current trends hold true.

'Not your grandfather's flu'

Approximately 15% of Knox County residents have received at least the first of two COVID-19 vaccine doses.

And while the county is currently outpacing most of the state in vaccination rates, health officials locally and across the nation are racing the clock against variant strains of the virus that now have a foothold in the United States.

The celebration of the arrival of the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine in mid-December were short-lived as stories of more contagious strains of the virus spreading in South Africa and Brazil soon followed.

Of primary concern to researchers is the indication that these two particular COVID-19 variants are resistant to the current vaccines.

Though perhaps counterintuitive, these vaccine-resistant strains make mass vaccination efforts even more important.

Dr. David Hopper, an immunologist in Naples, Florida, explained that viruses can’t mutate to create new strains if they have no host to live and replicate in in the first place.

“Because it’s a virus and not a bacteria, it unequivocally needs a host to survive,” Hopper explained, punctuating the importance of vaccinating as many people possible in the coming weeks.

Knox County Health Officer Dr. Alan Stewart explained that variations of any virus “are to be expected,” he said. “As long as the virus spreads, mutations will occur.”

Hopper and Stewart, communicating by speakerphone inside Knox County’s mobile command unit last week, say coronaviruses — like all RNA viruses — mutate, much like strains of the flu, and therefore propagate the need for vaccines that protect against dominant strains.

Initially, the strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States was one that originated in Wuhan, China, and was first detected on the west coast, but as viruses do, the coronavirus continued to mutate in order to survive and spread.

“Unlike the one that came directly from China, the one that came around the globe, through Europe, is about five times more contagious and is what infected most of the United States,” Stewart said.

Though a virus will mutate thousands of times, with many of those mutations proving inconsequential, Hopper and Stewart say some of the emerging variants prove to be more transmissible and some may even be more lethal.

“A variant coming in from England is indeed 30% more lethal,” Hopper said.

This is the reason so much international attention is now focused on strains originating in England, South Africa and Brazil — all of which have now been found in the United States.

“This is not your grandfather’s flu,” Hopper quipped, responding to a common refrain of those unwilling to acknowledge the harsh reality of the pandemic.

Initially, COVID-19 was rumored to be no worse than a bad cold or the flu, but that representation is far from accurate.

In terms of transmissibility, Hopper describes the R-naught value — how quickly a pathogen can spread — of SARS-CoV-2 compared to other viruses.

“Imagine one infected person walks into a room. The R-naught value indicates how many people that one person can infect. With the idea of herd immunity, you want to get that R-value below 1,” Hopper said.

The common flu has an R-value of 1.3, Ebola is close to 1.5, and MERS is less than 1.

But SARS-CoV-2, at the outset, was expected to have an R-value of 2.4, but Hopper says some new research indicates that number is actually 5.7, meaning any person infected with COVID is likely to infect nearly six other people in the same space if not properly masked and distanced.

“And that’s not to mention the strains from Brazil or England,” he added.

It’s the transmissibility, intensity and ability to evade antibodies in the current vaccines that have experts worried about some of these new variants.

“We’ve got to get herd immunity,” Hopper said, adding that because of the new, more contagious variant strains it may require 90% of people to be vaccinated — as opposed to the original estimate of 70% — to attain the safety of herd immunity.

Clearly exasperated, Hopper and Stewart say they realize communities won’t reach the safety of herd immunity until the vast majority of individuals finally realize just how serious COVID is and therefore choose to be vaccinated.

“This virus does so much damage to so many organs; I’ve never seen anything like this in my medical career,” Hopper said. “We have kids who are athletes who now need heart transplants.”

Too, Stewart added, though it’s clear that the elderly are at high risk, it’s still almost entirely unpredictable “who will get smacked hard by this and who won’t.”

Though the available Pfizer and Moderna vaccines may only be 50% effective — if that — in fighting the variant strains from Brazil and South Africa, the doctors say there is still no reason not to be vaccinated.

Currently, the dominant strain in Indiana and across the United States is one from England, and both available vaccines have proven highly effective in fighting that variant.

“I don’t see any downside to getting this vaccine,” Hopper said.

Not only are the vaccines highly effective against the dominant COVID strains currently in the U.S., they are safe — certainly much safer than the virus itself.

Hopper describes looking at horrifying images of COVID-infected lungs on X-rays and CAT scans.

“You see scarring of the lungs taking place even after the immune system has calmed down,” he said. “People are going to need lung transplants, some have cardiomyopathy, and others will need kidney transplants.”

One element particularly concerning to researchers and medical experts is the COVID long-hauler. These individuals may not necessarily be gravely ill and hospitalized, but still end up with lingering effects for months — the full extent of damage to mind and body are still unknown.

“I worry about the long haulers because there’s so much we don’t know. You don’t want this disease, period. Whether you have a mild or severe case, it’s like playing Russian roulette,” Hopper said.

“People think, ‘oh, if I get it then I’m free and clear.’ No you’re not.”

A full year after COVID-19 was confirmed to be in the United States, scientists are still trying to convince citizens that the virus is not a hoax.

Right now in England, hospitals are out of beds and out of oxygen. Similar scenes played out in Los Angeles, California last month, where nearly 7,000 L.A. residents died in January alone.

“This is not some joke,” Stewart said.

Despite some significant side effects to the vaccines — things like short-lived body aches, fever, fatigue and pain at the injection site — doctors urge people to be inoculated, explaining that reactions are an appropriate response from the immune system. They show that the body is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

“It’s not the virus, it’s your immune response,” Hopper said, noting that, no matter how uncomfortable, they are simply the sign of a healthy immune system at work.

“And it’s a heck of a lot better than being infected with the virus itself,” he added.

And as the new variant strains develop, virologists and immunologists will work to create booster vaccines to fight those specific mutations.

Most mutations seem to affect the spike protein, which is what covers the outer coating of the virus, giving it its spiky appearance and helps the virus attach to human cells.

“They can take snippets of nucleotides from the spikes to identify the changes and mutations,” Stewart explained, noting that researchers are already identifying those changes.

For now, experts urge residents to be vaccinated and highly recommend double masking to protect against the spread of all virus variants.