Columbus planners consider the law of the sun at scale

Financial Planners

As Columbus planners consider commercial solar regulations, questions are being raised about how such a project will affect the city’s long-term growth.

These questions were raised at the Columbus Planning Commission’s June 14 meeting to discuss possible changes to zoning ordinances related to commercial solar energy systems (CSES).

According to City and County Planning Director Jeff Bergman’s memo, a CSES or solar power plant is “a large-scale facility that produces electricity for commercial sale.” This classification does not apply to solar panels in private homes or businesses that primarily supply energy to the premises.

Solar plants are now listed for conditional use in agricultural priority zones and banned elsewhere, he said. The city’s zoning ordinances do not currently include specific minimum setbacks or other development criteria for these systems.

Meanwhile, the Bartholomew County Planning Commission passed the CSES ordinance in November. The complete document can be accessed from the City of Columbus, Bartholomew County Department of Planning website.

“I think the question for the City Planning Commission is whether they want to do the same thing in terms of creating standards for those kinds of facilities for inclusion in city zoning regulations,” Bergman said. “If so, do you want to follow the path the county has already taken, or do you want something different?”

He added that planning officials want to ensure that the Columbus City Board of Appeals has proper guidance for considering future applications for such projects. He is aware of three commercial solar companies that are pushing projects and assembling leased properties in the county, two of which are “relatively close to being able to apply for local approval.” It says.

Under County Ordinance, CSES is for conditional use in the Agriculture: Priority Areas and Agriculture: General Local Area areas.

Commercial solar plant setbacks must be 200 feet from all non-participating property lines and 500 feet from all non-participating residential properties. Substations for solar power plants must be set back at least 500 feet from nonparticipating property lines.

Additionally, solar farms must be at least 0.5 miles away from municipal boundaries.

There are no exceptions to these standards unless the affected property owner or local government leader signs a waiver.

For each proposed solar development in the county, a public hearing will be held before the Bartholomew County Zoning Appeals Board, after which board members will vote on specific criteria. . Planning officials said the ordinance’s provisions are flexible and the zoning appeals board has the power to condition developments.

The ordinance also includes requirements for other aspects of the proposed CSES, such as the site decommissioning and rehabilitation process and documentation that must be submitted before the issuance of a remedial siting permit.

“The most likely scenario for the city is that there are facilities of this type within two miles of jurisdiction, and some of them may be within county jurisdiction and some may be within city jurisdiction. We’re thinking about two miles outside the city limits,” Bergman said. “We would like to inform you that we are aware of two such projects under consideration in Bartholomew County.”

He said both projects are significant or “potentially significant” within the city’s jurisdiction.

Indiana law allows city planning commissions in the state to establish extended planning jurisdiction within two miles of the boundaries of each incorporated city or town.

In Bergman’s memo on commercial solar plants in this expanded jurisdiction, parts like decommissioning, financial guarantees and road-use agreements are most likely to be handled by county commissioners.

He added that county ordinances stipulate that solar plants cannot be placed within half a mile of city limits, but the city may choose to adopt a different standard. .

City Council spokesman Dave Bush said it’s something to consider.

“Part of the reason we have a two-mile jurisdiction is so we can moderate our growth to some extent or plan for city growth,” he said. “So I think the biggest thing is that most of what the county has done is very smart. I think it’s about the growth of and how close you can get these facilities to city boundaries because they might not want to be within a two mile jurisdiction, 30 years is It’s been a really long time.”

Bergman said solar companies indicate a typical lease term is 30 years.

Commission member Laura Garrett also asked what impact such long-term leases of solar facilities might have on future development as the community’s population continues to grow.

“Will this force housing farther from the city center and drive more?” she asked.

“It’s likely that the development of solar power is just a barrier,” Bergman replied. “…about urban density, he’s talking about sewer and water maintenance, fire protection, which he doesn’t fill a 2,000 acre lot.”

Communities in other states see drinking water well capture areas as preferred sites for solar power plants, he said, as these projects are believed to be more beneficial to groundwater quality than agriculture. bottom. Some are considering locating these development facilities near airports.

“When you think about how this county and we have grown, and when you think about the plots that have been proposed to us, a lot of it happens on the west side of town, the southwest side of town,” said a member of the committee. said Amber Porter. “And my understanding, perhaps I’m wrong, is that a lot of this is probably happening on the northeast side, in that direction.”

Bergman said the west side of the county is heavily wooded and hilly and likely unsuitable for solar farms that developers typically aim to sit on flat land, so most solar farm proposals He said he expected it to be located east of Columbus.

Porter then asked why the east side of Columbus hasn’t seen the same level of growth and housing development as the west side.

According to Bergman, there are a number of factors that make Eastside growth difficult. He said the area’s “shortcomings in public facilities” are beginning to improve, but there are some long-established farmers in the area who are not interested in selling their land for development.

Following Mr. Bergman’s presentation on county regulation and discussion by committee members, several members of the public shared their thoughts on the solar sector.

Matt Carothers, a member of the Bartholomew County Citizens Group Concerned about the Commercial Solar sector, said the group is concerned about the impact on property values ​​and property owners’ rights. They feel the county has done an “amazing job” on these issues, he said.

Two sizable lots within the city’s two-mile jurisdiction have been signed for solar development, and an application could be filed with the District Appeals Board this fall, Carothers said. He is hearing signs. He added that he himself was approached about signing a lease.

“Like I said, we’re all competing for the same space,” Carothers said. “And if a footprint this big has been locked up over his 30 years, how many future projects this group is considering aren’t being considered anymore?”

Real estate broker Jeff Hillicord similarly said he was concerned about property values ​​and the availability of land for future housing developments.

“If these solar plants eat up all the available land in the county for 30 years, the problem will get worse,” he said.

In discussing next steps, Bergman said planners have gathered data on the city’s growth prospects and oil well areas, which will be included in the committee’s July 12 agenda for discussion. Stated.

In addition to discussing commercial solar installations, Planning Commission members also discussed proposed amendments to other zoning ordinances on themes such as attached dwellings, manufactured housing, and electric vehicle charging stations.

Bergman said in a previous interview that changes to the zoning ordinance require a nomination vote from the planning commission and approval from the city council, the latter group voting twice on the issue.

Commission member Zach Ellison noted that future commercial solar development is likely to take a long time to materialize.

“From one of the seminars we attended, it seems like there would be a very long approval process to approve these,” he said. “It will take four to seven years because of the backlog. So what we hear today is years away unless we have already filed for approval.”

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