HANCOCK COUNTY — After a discussion on more changes and hearing community members ask for more time to review the solar ordinance draft, the Hancock County plan commission voted to continue discussion of the ordinance this past Tuesday night.
Kayla Brooks, Hancock County planning director, and Hollie Kinker, assistant planner, presented changes and updates to the ordinance to hold their second public hearing.
Among the changes were including an Solar Energy Systems Overlay, which would mean that any large-scale or utility-scale solar farm would go to the county commissioners on a project by project basis — much like a PUD — with the purpose to “protect the public interest related to solar energy collection and may cover parts of several underlying zones or only to a portion of a single underlying zone,” according to the most recent ordinance draft.
Large scale would be considered one acre up to 40 acres and utility scale would be anything more than 40 acres. Micro, small and medium scale solar projects would not require the overlay.
At the meeting, Kinker provided a map showing the utility power line locations throughout the county and then 1.5- and 2-mile radius buffers around those lines. Kinker said that through their research they were told that in those areas is most likely where a solar project would want to be located or lease land.
Plan commission member Lacey Willard asked if they needed to also address taxation districts, with Kinker saying other solar ordinances hadn’t done so.
“In looking at the solar ordinances across the state, that has not been addressed in those ordinances, and I think that’s probably an appropriate response because taxation can change,” Kinker said.
During the public hearing, many spoke about the ordinance — not in opposition but requesting more time to review the ordinance and express any comments. One resident, who is also a farmer, said he was unaware of the ordinance until Monday night.
Marica Coley spoke on behalf of a family farm of roughly 1,500 acres. Coley said that they feel solar is the route they’d like to go for a portion of their land and then be able to pass the land onto their children and so on. Coley said leasing with a company would allow them to pass the land along to their children and also to switch the land from IN to AG after the leasing is done.
However, when asked about the overlay in the solar ordinance, Coley said she was a bit confused, and wasn’t sure if she saw the value of spending the time, effort and money to rezone land knowing it will most likely be rezoned back.
Coley said that she appreciates the fact they have started working on an ordinance and would like to see them continue to work on it.
“It’s a good start to a great plan for Hancock County,” she said.
Larry Sedam, a Hancock County resident who is often at plan commission meetings, expressed his concern for the decommission process of the ordinance and said that they need to make sure the decommission process is just as covered as the beginning, protecting the future 30 years down the line.
John Sparks said that he greatly appreciates being invited to discussions by the planning department and the ordinance looks drastically different now than it did when first introduced. However, Sparks still had some concerns.
One major concern Sparks said was about drainage and that he would want to see some kind of language that spoke to an economic development plan that would work with the commissioners to have those who put in the solar have an impact fee that goes to maintaining and improving drainage.
Towards the end of the meeting, the board engaged in another discussion about the solar ordinance, mainly talking about the taxation aspect. Attorney Rhonda Cook said that the state has passed legislation on how much one can tax a solar project depending on where they are located in the state.
Cook agreed that there is a need to work with the assessor ahead of time because she fears that farmers that are in negotiations are calculating their profit margins and basing it off what they pay now in property taxes, which may not be the same later on.
It was also mentioned that, out of the “donut counties,” Hancock County is one of the last to create an ordinance. Kinker said that after speaking with the donut counties’ planning departments she found that some counties have had their ordinance passed and then immediately gone into moratorium — temporary suspension — or hasn’t been tested yet.
With many other community members speaking in regard to the solar ordinance during the public hearing and the items discussed during extended discussion, the plan commission unanimously agreed to continue discussion of the ordinance to the next meeting, which is set for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 23 in the Annex building.