ALEXANDRIA – Emotions ran high during the Madison County Board of Zoning Appeals meeting Thursday night on a proposed solar farm in northern Madison County.

Throughout the meeting at the Madison County 4-H Fairgrounds, opponents of the $110 million project drew cheers and applause as they spoke out against the solar farm.

It became clear during the two-hour meeting that opinions on the controversial project are not changing.

The proposed 120-megawatt solar farm on 850 acres north of Frankton requires initial approval for a special exception from the Board of Zoning Appeals to move forward to the county council and drainage board.

The Board of Zoning Appeals took no vote Thursday on the requested special exception for the solar farm and two requested variances. It will discuss the request from Invenergy for a third time on May 28 at 8:30 a.m.

As proposed, the Lone Oak Solar Farm exceeds the set-back requirements of the county’s ordinance. The ordinance requires 50 feet for non-participating properties, and the company is proposing a 250-foot setback.

Opponents want a 500-foot setback from the line of neighboring properties, rather than from the nearest residential structure. Opponents have contended the project will take prime farm land out of production, lower property values and ruin the rural aesthetics of the area.

Invenergy, the developer of the project, has signed leases with several property owners who contend the leasing of ground is a business decision and they should have the right to utilize their property as they choose.

Opponent Lee Walls said the project is not conducive to the comprehensive plan for the county, which encourages responsible land use.

“We understand that new sources of energy have to be developed,” Walls said. “We’re losing farm land to development. Land should be treated as a valuable asset.”

Katya Samoteskul, project manager of Invenergy, said the solar farm would take less than one percent of the agricultural land in Madison County and could be returned to farm use in the future.

Walls recommended moving the project to brownfield sites in the county. He contended that, although Invenergy maintains there is nothing hazardous in the solar panels, lead pollution could occur.

Invenergy officials said there is no history of contamination from existing solar farms, and the company has agreed to hire an independent party to monitor groundwater where the solar panels will be located.

Attorney Terry Hall, representing the opponents, said groundwater should be tested on properties where the panels are not located.

But BZA member John Simmermon said that testing at the site of the panels is where any possible contamination would first be discovered.

“The environment and what’s around you makes your home,” he said. “None of us signed up to live near a power plant.”

Walls said it isn’t fair that 11 people are making a decision for the people living in the area. He was referencing the four members of the BZA and the seven-member Madison County Council, which will consider a requested tax abatement by the company.

Opponent Jacob Short said that Madison County commissioners didn’t have a project of this size in mind when they approved the solar ordinance.

“The size and scope of the project is too big to be OK,” Short said. “This is not a reasonable request.”

“We’re turning prime farm land into a sea of glass,” he said, noting that ground adjacent to Madison-Grant High School could accommodate the project and impact fewer homes.

Molly Hobbs, who recently graduated from Ball State University with degrees in natural resources and environmental management, spoke in favor of the solar farm.

“We need to have a more sustainable energy source,” Hobbs said. “Madison County should be looking at the future of clean energy.

“I will benefit little from the solar farm,” she added. “But I will benefit from cleaner air.”

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

Next meeting

What: Invenergy's proposed 120-megawatt solar farm in northern Madison County. The company is being asked to approve a special exception and two variances pertaining to setbacks on adjacent properties and timeline to start construction.

Who: Madison County Board of Zoning Appeals

When: May 28 at 8:30 a.m.

Where: Council chambers, Madison County Government Center, 16 E. Ninth St., Anderson