Clouds of uncertainty and confusion parted somewhat and new light shined Wednesday night on what local officials want to see in a solar ordinance for Henry County.

Setbacks, location, limits on the amount of farmland used and property value guarantees were among the concerns raised by Commissioners Ed Tarantino, Bobbi Plummer and Steve Dellinger.

“We have received an amended copy of an ordinance created with help from local residents Gary Rodgers, Rosie Richey and Patsy Conyers,” Tarantino said. “I think it is almost inevitable that we are going to have some solar projects here because there is tremendous pressure. Obviously there are people in the county who do want it. I think we should have an ordinance that allows a reasonable amount of it.”

Tarantino joined Commissioners Plummer and Dellinger in getting specific about changes they wanted to see in the solar ordinance originally proposed by the Henry County Planning Commission. The three commissioners formally rejected the proposed ordinance in February.

Plummer shared emails received from constituents about solar energy. As many as 10 favoring solar energy projects were received and entered into the official record.

One read Wednesday night expressed disappointment about the most recent solar ordinance rejection.

“We need an ordinance that is friendly for landowners and developers in Henry County, one that encourages these revenue boosting projects to come to our community,” Plummer read.

In addition to the emails, local businessman Mike Broyles expressed frustration about the lack of action.

“The planning commission spent a considerable amount of time going through the process to see what needed to be done and what should be done,” Broyles said.”That was turned down by the Commissioners, but there was no input on what needed changed.”

One by one, the Commissioners took the microphone and listed what they’d like to see added in a Henry County solar ordinance.

For Tarantino, the list included:

• legal advice on a decommissioning agreement. “What happens at the end of life for these projects?” Tarantino asked. “There are projects all over the country where the decommissioning agreement was weak. In California, there are turbine graveyards.”
• a property value guarantee than the six months in the original proposal. “I can see it going a year,” he said.
• limits on the total acreage of Henry County farm land used for solar panels. “We would be losing a whole lot of production in corn and soybeans…which I think would have an impact on food prices….but I don’t think they (solar panels) would make the electric bills that much different,” Tarantino said.

Plummer said her main issue revolved around setbacks.

“I would be more comfortable with 500 feet, not 100 feet,” Plummer said. “Madison County recently changed their setback requirements to 500 feet.”

Plummer also suggested solar farm developers consider local brownfield sites like the former Firestone plant in New Castle as opposed to tillable farmland.

“I would love to see something encouraging those types of uses,” she said.

Drainage, property value guarantees, economic impact studies along with access to and training for responding to emergency situations that might arise at solar farm were among Plummer’s other concerns.

Dellinger said he’s heard about economic benefit to the county, but not seen any concrete numbers. That’s important in his eyes, since some fear solar farms might stifle other economic growth.

“No one’s had an exact figure,” Dellinger said. “It’s all estimates. Nobody breaks it down over the life of the projects. If we’re just spinning our wheels and not gaining anything from it, why do it?”

County Councilman Kenon Gray joined Wednesday’s conversation electronically and told Commissioners every school system in the state where solar farms were located had a 10 to 20 percent decline in enrollment within a five-year period. He added his research found that two-thirds of the solar farm money goes to the lease holders and only one-third to the county.

But Connie Neininger, a consultant with Hoosiers For Renewables, urged Commissioners to consider more than just property values and feared enrollment drops.

“One thing I ask you to do is take a look at what has happened with the assessed valuation in Henry County,” Neininger said. “Over the last five years, you have lost over $57 million dollars in assessed valuation. When you bring in new economic development projects such as a solar farm, that is adding to your assessed valuation.

“And as we all know,” Neininger continued, “what happens when assessed valuation increases? Everyone else’s property tax rate goes down.”

Neininger said in her home town of Monticello, property tax rates dropped from and average of $1.38 to $1.06 per $100 assessed valuation after solar farm projects were installed about a decade ago.

With their Wednesday comments, the commissioners tried to get a stalled process moving again.

The county commissioners first voted down the solar ordinance proposal in December. In January, the planning commission sent a letter to the Commissioners asking for specific items they’d like to see added or removed from the ordinance but reportedly did not get any details they could act on. The Commissioners’ final rejection vote in February killed the ordinance as it was written.

On top of that, a work session the county commissioners had planned earlier this month to discuss the solar ordinance was abruptly canceled.

Tarantino said it all might be a moot point if state lawmakers pass HB 1381 is passed.

“That would take all control over what happens in this county away from the planning board and away from the Commissioners,” Tarantino said.

Broyles said local officials were trying to have it both ways with that bill – clinging to home rule, saying the state shouldn’t be interfering in their county business, yet, at the same time, striving to tell landowners what they can and cannot do with their property.

“It seems like you’re kind of on a slippery slope with the state,” Broyles said. “You want the state to follow home rule, but here we’re trying to tell farmers what they can do with their ground. If they can make more money with solar, shouldn’t they be allowed to do that?”
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