It was a different day but the same result for the utility company looking to install a large-scale commercial solar farm in eastern Howard County.
Tuesday night in the auditorium at Central Middle International School, the Howard County Board of Zoning of Appeals voted 3-2 to once again reject a special exception permit request submitted by ENGIE to operate a commercial solar farm, named Emerald Green Solar, near Greentown.
BZA members Jeff Miller, Richard Byrum and Michael Imbler were the “no” votes, while Frank Faulkner and Michael Schroeder voted in favor. The vote is identical to how the board voted last August when it denied ENGIE’s first attempt at acquiring a special exception permit.
The BZA’s vote was met with a loud applause from the project’s opponents, many of whom were wearing bright red shirts that read “Stop Big Solar” on the front and “Save Our Countryside” on the back.
Without the special exception permit, ENGIE can’t continue with the proposed solar farm project.
Now, the company has a few options moving forward
It can do what it did the last time — wait six months to file another special exception permit request, have the request come before the BZA for a third time and hope the third time’s the charm. It can appeal the decision and file a petition for judicial review within the next month. Or it can decide to no longer try to bring the project to Howard County.
When asked after the meeting if the company plans on appealing and seeking judicial review, Tom Green, of ENGIE North America and project manager for Emerald Green Solar, said it was “too soon to say.”
“We feel this is a really good project, and we feel like we did everything the county required,” Green said. “We’ll have to think about what our options are.”
According to ENGIE’s special exception permit application, the proposed solar project would occupy 1,874 acres of land just south east of Greentown — though the company says the total area within the project’s fence will be less than 1,300 acres — and generate 200 megawatts of electricity.
The setback from property lines of non-participating property owners would be 300 feet, an increase from the 200 feet the company proposed last year.
The increase in the setback is due to the solar ordinance the Howard County Commissioners passed last November, which, among other things, mandated any county solar project be 300 feet away from any permanent structure on the property of a non-participating landowner.
The solar ordinance also mandates a decommissioning plan for when the solar project reaches the end its lifespan, requires a company at their own expense to train first responders “concerning solar panel hazards and corresponding safety measures” and provide copies of “Material Safety Data Sheets” within the first 60 days after installation, and requires buffering to be placed around the project, among other things.
By the company’s own estimates, the solar farm would generate some $30 million in tax revenue for local taxing units, including $19 million to Eastern Howard School Corporation, over the life of the project, which is expected to be 30-40 years.
The project would also provide monetary payments to participating landowners for use of their land. ENGIE said it is also offering “good neighbor” agreements to adjacent, non-participating landowners.
According to Green, those good neighbor agreements would total $20,000 in payments — $1,000 at signing and $19,000 once construction begins.
Additionally, Green reiterated multiple times that the company had no qualms with the county’s solar ordinance and would meet all requirements.
During the two hour meeting, nearly two dozen people spoke either in favor of or in opposition to the project.
Those against it largely cited the possibility of the project’s negative impact on property values in the area and a desire to not lose tillable farmland.
Some property owners who agreed to lease their land to ENGIE came out in support of the project, with all stating that they saw the project as an opportunity to diversify their farmland revenues and provide stable revenues for them and their children into the future.
Other non-directly affected residents said they supported the project as a way for the county to show it supports renewable energy.
Under the county’s zoning law, BZA board members are to consider the following criteria before voting to approve any special exception use permit request:
- The proposal will not be injurious to the public health, safety, morals and welfare of the community.
- The requirements and development standards for the requested use as prescribed by this zoning ordinance will be met.
- Granting the exception will not subvert the general purposes served by this zoning ordinance and will not permanently injure other property or uses in the same district and vicinity
- The proposed use will be consistent with the character of the district therein, the spirit and intent of this zoning ordinance, and the comprehensive plan.
The staff report from the Kokomo-Howard County Plan Commission department concluded that the project met those above conditions.
Questions and comments from the BZA varied.
Miller, the owner of Cornerstone Construction Consulting, a local company that specializes in custom home building and remodeling, said he had a hard time believing the solar project would not have a negative effect on nearby property values as he’s already lost two new home construction contracts in the area because of the proposed solar farm.
“I don’t see how this isn’t going to affect their property values,” Miller said. “I’ve seen nothing that’s been shared that convinces me that it’s not going to affect their property values.”
ENGIE denies that the project would negatively impact nearby property values. Green said the company commissioned impact studies that concluded it wouldn’t and encouraged the public to look at the studies’ methodologies.
Byrum’s questions centered around recycling of the panels once their lifespan is up and how exactly the bond would be set up to fund the decommissioning project, while Imbler’s questions and comments sought more information on the “good neighbor” agreements, why the company chose to structure the company as an LLC and expressed concerns about ENGIE, or even the bond insurer, going bankrupt during the life of the project.
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