Board delays decision on controversial solar farm

Ken de la Bastide | The Herald BulletinThe chamber of the Madison County Council was filled to capacity April 23 for the Board of Zoning Appeals meeting with opponents and supporters of the proposed Lone Oak Solar Farm on land in Pipe Creek and Monroe townships. The meeting lasted three hours and the BZA set another meeting for May 16.

ANDERSON – After listening to three hours of arguments for and against a proposed solar farm, the Madison County Board of Zoning Appeals delayed a decision.

BZA members raised some issues Tuesday concerning the proposed 850-acre Lone Oak Solar Farm by Chicago-based Invenergy.

The zoning appeals board will meet at 6 p.m. May 16 at the Madison County Fairgrounds in Alexandria to listen to a rebuttal from company officials and additional public testimony.

Madison County Planning Director Brad Newman said the company is requesting a special exception for the solar farm, a variance from the setback requirement within the project area and a variance that will allow the special exception to be extended past three years.

Newman said a decommissioning agreement has been signed that will require a $1.5 million bond to remove the solar panels from the property in the future.

He said Invenergy has agreed not to place any solar panels in a floodway and will keep the panels 100 feet from any residential property, which exceeds the county’s requirements.

The proposed solar farm has to be approved by the county's drainage board and part of the agreement is the current Lone Oak project could not be expanded in the future or the company couldn’t construct another solar farm without BZA approval.

The proposed site is between county roads 350 West and 600 West and 1000 North and 1300 North in Pipe Creek and Monroe townships.

Acting BZA chairman John Simmermon said he was concerned about future drainage after the wind farm located near Elwood failed to repair drainage tiles.

He proposed a $100,000 bond to take effect five years after construction is completed to cover the costs of repairing or replacing damaged drainage tiles.

Simmermon also wanted Invenergy to pay for an inspector, selected by the BZA, to deal with drainage issues.

Attorney Mary Soliday said the company would agree to both of those requirements.

Simmermon said although the company is offering a 100-foot setback from residential properties, the BZA wants to work with surrounding property owners.

“We understand your concerns,” he said of the development's impact on property values. “We’re trying to make this work.”

At the end of the meeting Simmermon said BZA members will review the setback requirements.

“We feel for the people with panels all around them,” he said. “We want to protect people and drainage in the area.”

Soliday said when the Madison County commissioners approved a solar ordinance in 2017 it was to encourage the installation of solar energy in the county.

Katya Samoteskul, project manager for Invenergy, said less than one-third of the acreage would be covered in solar panels.

She said it will generate $26 million in additional property taxes and payments of $34 million to the landowners.

“Solar power is not new,” Samoteskul said. “There are no known environmental or health risks.”

She said there is no evidence that property values will be affected and a survey of nine county assessors in Indiana found no reduction in the assessed value of property.

Numerous residents both for and against the project addressed the board.

Opponents focused on the loss of prime farm land, potential noise, impact on property values and looking at the solar panels.

Supporters focused on owners' right to determine how land is used, economic benefits to allow maintaining of family farms, and growth in the county.

Attorney Terry Hall, representing a group called Concerned Solar Neighbors, asked the BZA to delay the process.

“I look forward to more information,” she said. “The county’s comprehensive plan includes a provision to maintain prime farmland.

“I’m in favor of solar panels,” she said. “Think about where we put solar farms. They can have solar anywhere. Select farmland because it is the cheapest and fastest. It is an economic decision by a developer. Not necessarily the best thing.”

Lee Walls, an opponent of the project, said it is up to the property owners if they decide to lease ground for the solar farm.

“This is an industrial site,” he said. “It’s all about the money. Money makes people do crazy things.

“The company is here for the opportunity,” Walls said. “They are destroying our agricultural community. This is our homes.”

He said if they build a solar farm on 100 or 150 acres near a substation the residents wouldn’t be opposed.

Supporter Dan Etchison said he did a lot of study on the impact on property values and found no negative effect.

“Right now farmers have an excessive amount of grain we’re trying to sell and that was before the tariffs,” he said. “I know no one wants to look at solar panels, but this is an opportunity.”

Mitchel Kane said his father’s residence will be surrounded on four sides and his on three sides by the solar panels.

“We have no problem with it,” he said.

Several supporters noted that farmers are struggling with the ups and downs of the economy and should have the right to lease their land.

Follow Ken de la Bastide on Twitter @KendelaBastide, or call 765-640-4863.

What's Next

What: Inverengy request for special exception for Lone Oak Solar Farm

Who: Madison County Board of Zoning Appeals

When: 6 p.m. May 16

Where: Madison County Fairgrounds in Alexandria

Senior Reporter covering Anderson and Madison County government, politics and auto racing for The Herald Bulletin. Has been working as a journalist in central Indiana since 1977.