Clark County recommends amended ordinance with solar farm standards –

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JEFFERSONVILLE — Those for and against solar farms, and everyone in between, attended the Clark County Plan Commission’s meeting amending the Clark County Unified Development Ordinance.

The plan commission ultimately agreed Wednesday to recommend the Clark County Commissioners approve the UDO as amended, after some changes were made following public comment.

This new recommended UDO was first presented by consultant Amy Williams in which she went through the articles pertaining to commercial solar energy system standards.

These amendments focused on power and communication lines, setbacks, roads and right of way, screening, ground cover, fencing, emergency response, noise and vibration, signal interference, decommission plan and liability insurance.

The plan commission ultimately kept most of the original UDO presented by Williams, however, the biggest change was creating a 650-foot setback from the solar farm property to the very edge of a non-participating residential dwelling. This was originally proposed to be 250 feet.

The 650 feet, while arbitrary, appeared to be to find a middle ground between the 250 feet and the 1,000 feet that some were suggesting.

A total of 34 visitors spoke over the course of the meeting, which contained equal parts people speaking about stronger regulations, lesser regulations and generally about solar farms in the area and their potential.

Residents who are in the vicinity of the BrightNight Flag Run Solar Project located in north rural Clark County spoke at the meeting, as they have spoken at others. This farm would hypothetically, according to BrightNight’s website, take up about 3,900 acres of land and produce enough power for more than 70,000 homes.

However, as discussed in the meeting by the plan commission members, there is currently not one application for a commercial solar facility in the county. BrightNight’s original solar project special use permit request was denied by the Clark County Board of Zoning Appeals last year, although they can reapply.

Plan commission members also argued that even with the UDO, whatever it might read, those applying to construct a potential wind, solar or commercial facility would need to go through several steps of bureaucracy including paperwork, meetings, public hearings and approvals before anything is even constructed. The UDO simply sets a set of rules and standards to refer to.

Sandy Basham, who has been outspoken about the previous proposed solar farm since she lives in the vicinity, suggested that a moratorium be placed on the UDO question, and that a committee of some sort be created to discuss it further. She and others are wanting a longer, more comprehensive section on solar farms in the UDO.

Farmer Jerry Brooks said considering Clark County is developing quickly, high standards ought to be put in place to ensure there’s high quality developments being built.

Property value has been a subject of concern among residents. Couple Dave and Anita Tillet said that the original BrightNight project would “strip away” the property value of their land, even with a 250-foot setback. Dave Tillet said he’s not against solar in general, but feels it is too close.

“They’d be crazy to buy that house,” Dave Tillet said.

Some individuals, including Nick Kirkland, who identified himself as a state-certified general appraiser, said according to studies from the past six years, rural areas with “typical vegetative buffers of one to three rows and setbacks of about 120 feet from panel at home or greater,” did not have an impact on property values.

He also said he spoke with five brokers across four different transactions of homes adjacent to and in proximity of solar farms in Clark County who apparently said that they had no impact on the adjoining property values.

Jason Kuchamp, who identified himself as a Fort Wayne lawyer representing 23 households, although they were not named, said that solar farms divide residents, causes the loss of jobs, removes acres of farmland from production and generally transform communities.

“It’s very important that you that you get it right,” he said to the plan commission.

There was no amendment specifically added to address property values. Residents had previously argued that property values be guaranteed by appraising the land before and after development. At a previous meeting, Williams said she was told the legal basis for this may not be possible due to the instability of the housing market.

Robbie Norrington, a representative of the Indiana Laborers’ Union in New Albany, also spoke, and said that solar farm projects in the area would be beneficial to the local workforce.

“This project will serve as a beacon of employment for the community,” he said.

He said the construction phase will provide employment opportunities for a variety of skilled labor and employ local electricians and operators once operational and workers to provide maintenance.

“This translates to a steady influx of jobs,” he said.

Area farmers also attended the meeting, but provided their input that establishing stricter guidelines on how a solar farm is constructed would set a precedent in terms of how their land would be regulated, including how it looks and what the land can be used for.

Farmer and resident Joshua Mullins said he feels that these solar farm regulations are turning the rural part of the county into a homeowners’ association.

“Do I need to come here and get approval from you people to paint my barn that’s been there for 70 years?” he said.

Jeffersonville resident Barb Anderson said telling people what they can and can’t do with their own property is a “slippery slope,” but said she feels that a compromise is possible.

She said considering the diminishment of natural resources, renewable energy is the future.

“What we need to do is calm down a little bit, move forward, not backwards,” she said.

Charlestown resident Kerri Vaughn said that technical and specialized knowledge is required to make informed decisions on industrial solar farms at the county level since there is misinformation being shared online. She said the solar farm standards ought to be more soft and that the property rights of local farmers ought to be protected.

President Connie Sellers said that she personally wouldn’t want to live near a solar farm either and is skeptical of them, however, she would like to be diplomatic about this, and feels for everyone involved including farmers.

“I can’t go based on my opinion,” she said.

Plan commission members argued that despite feedback for other regulations that visitors advocated for during the meeting, these could still be added in later, but the UDO still ought to be recommended as is since the regulations are stronger than what is currently in it.

Local farmer Max Zimmerman spoke at the meeting and said he and his family have leased some of their land for solar panels, which helps to offset and diversify income considering income from crops can be unstable. He said the UDO reached by the plan commission is fair for the most part, but doesn’t love the whole thing.

Basham said that she was happy with the 650-foot setback, but still feels there needs to be some kind of moratorium put in place for around six months so that all parties can sit down and discuss the ramifications of solar farms.

This amended UDO will be potentially approved by the commissioners at its meeting on April 25.

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