PRINCETON – One of the most talked-about and talked-out actions in local government was reversed Tuesday night, as Gibson County Commissioners killed the countywide zoning ordinance by a 2-1 vote, and disbanded the Gibson County Advisory Plan Commission, originally tasked with developing the ordinance.
After rescinding zoning, commissioners also approved, on a 2-1 vote, the first reading of proposed solar and wind turbine safety ordinances at Tuesday’s meeting at the Toyota Events Center.
The safety ordinances are designed to give the county power to license and regulate some aspects of the renewable energy projects in the county, although pending legislation (House Bill 1381) in Indianapolis could limit the powers of any local safety ordinance or zoning ordinance if it’s adopted into law.
Before taking action, commissioners offered another round of public comment on the issue, with 17 people addressing the board, in addition to four previously submitted written comments.
Mike McConnell, Francisco, served on the APC, and questioned the language of the ordinance rescinding zoning. McConnell noted that the new ordinance says commissioners “attempted” to adopt zoning in 2020. “I think they did adopt it, is that not correct? If it wasn’t adopted, why are you trying to rescind it?”
“I know they attempted to adopt it and there was a lawsuit against it,” Commissioner Ken Montgomery noted.
“It was adopted,” said McConnell, “and it is the law of the land at this time, is that not correct?”
“No, not really,” replied Montgomery.
“There’s obviously been new commissioners elected at this point, and new policy,” attorney Grant Swartzentruber said.
“I just don’t agree with the wording. I’m wondering if the wording of this ordinance is incorrect. It was adopted, not attempted to be adopted,” McConnell repeated.
Bob Schleter told commissioners that all of the money spent on zoning would have been better spent on infrastructure. “Do away with the zoning ordinance and get on with protecting the citizens of our county,” he told them.
Others criticized the zoning process as fertile ground for bureaucracy.
Mike Moore, rural Princeton, said he’s concerned about large corporations coming in and landowners signing over their ground when there’s not a lot of clarity in the process. Moore said he talked to his neighbors about a proposed solar farm and only one in about 65 people knew the project was going to be bordering their property. “I ask commissioners and city elected officials to work together with taxpayers and people it is affecting, to work with solar companies to make some compromises so this will support our community the best it can.”
Steve Shearer, who lives near Princeton, said he doesn’t fully understand the zoning or proposed safety ordinances. “I do see you do not agree on issues that are desperately needed to protect against encroachment or protecting landowners,” he said. “I recognize that if enough lease money is offered to owners of farmground, they will accept. I don’t blame ‘em. …but I fear money will do the talking,” he said. He said he believes the proposed Gibson Solar project southwest and southeast of Princeton hasn’t been transparent enough.
Kent Maurer asked commissioners for some type of compromise from the zoning ordinance to the proposed license ordinances. He said three years of work in more than 30 meetings were involved in the zoning ordinance, while the proposed license ordinances have been developed with much less opportunity for public discussion. Maurer said that commissioners who believe winning the election in November was a referendum on zoning aren’t considering the slim percentage of their win, and encouraged them to compromise.
Randy Kiesel thanked thank commissioners for rescinding zoning, an action that “keeps the door open for the entrepreneurial spirit. It allows the small property owner to do something with the property he owns. I also thank you for the foresight that industry does need some regulations,” he said, referring to the licensing ordinances.
Montgomery told Kiesel the proposed safety ordinance have more teeth than the zoning ordinance did regarding wind and solar operations.
Bob Schmitz criticized former commissioners for spending nearly $300,000 to develop a zoning ordinance when they were posted with 1,000 signatures against zoning. “We could have done a lot of things with that,” he said. “We’ve finally got two commissioners who are going to work for the people. The past ones thought we worked for them. This national stuff was getting passed down to the county. It’s not going to happen in Gibson County, just take that to the bank.”
Erin Maurer said she objects to repealing zoning and described any perceived mandate upon newly elected commissioners to rescind it as a false narrative. Maurer said the win margins of the two new commissioners were 1% and 8%, which she said means the county is split on the issue. “If you ignore that over half the county wants protection of zoning, aren’t you guilty of the same heavy-handed authority of which you accuse your predecessors? Do the work to fix the zoning document so that it will meet the needs of our county,” she said. “Find a compromise.”
Clay Pflug said the election of a Democratic candidate opposed to zoning in a county where Donald Trump won 74% of the vote shows a desire to rescind zoning. “I thank the majority of the board of commissioners for sticking your neck out there. The majority of the people do not want zoning or we wouldn’t be here,” he said.
Steve Obert, who served as APC president, said he was a part of the study process over three years and almost 35 meeetings. “….A lot of people who have opposed zoning have been my friends, people I’m neighbors with, people I respect. The APC approached this with thoughtfulness, respect and civility. A lot of people who opposed zoning have tried to discredit the process and the discredit the people involved,” he said.
Responding to a comment that Board of Commissioners President Warren Fleetwood made earlier in the meeting about not being able to speak at an APC hearing, Obert said the process was to keep order and not to engage and respond to questions during hearings. Those were going to be done at working meetings. “It was never my attention to silence anyone,” he said. “If I have offended you or anyone in this county, then I would ask for forgiveness for that – but I am proud of the process and the APC members and how they conducted themselves.”
Genie Gard, Owensville, said zoning encompassed the county, and the replacement with safety ordinances seems like a reaction to wind and solar energy companies. “Does that mean every time something new comes in, that you guys will write an ordinance about it?
“In my opinion,” said Fleetwood, “any time we feel like there’s a need for an ordinance that needs to be addressed, it’s an obligation for the county.”
“It seems to me it’s kind of reactionary,” said Gard.
“I’d like to think we’re thinking 20 years down the road,” said Fleetwood. “I believe as issues arise, we’ll deal with them. All of us commissioners are looking out for our community…”
“I’m thinking you’re doing it piecemeal,” she said.
Les Kiesel said licensing ordinances, aren’t that much different than zoning, but he’s been told they won’t hold up in court. He asked whether commissioners have weighed in on the pending state legislation, and questioned the transparency in the process commissioners used in drafting their safety ordinance. “It seems we should hire the attorneys before they do the work.”
Jackson Kelly law firm attorney Josh Claybourn, who helped form the safety ordinance, said his firm has engaged with lawmakers to assure that wind power devices must be installed in a manner to mitigate weather and Doppler radar. “The permit ordinance has the same language as House Bill 1381,” he said. “That bill is designed to be uniform law across the state,” noting that if the bill passes, all local governments with zoning or safety ordinances would have to revise to align with the new law.
“It’s (House Bill 1381) a ceiling on default standards that a local government can pass,” said attorney Grant Swartzentruber. “A local government can be less restrictive, but not more restrictive if it’s passed.”
Beverly Adler said she doesn’t have much faith in the proposed safety ordinances, which need to address more stringent sound standards, wind turbine blade throw and, road repairs during operations/maintenance.
Others told commissioners that zoning is just to many restrictions, bringing city life to rural areas, and described the safety ordinance as the compromise in place of zoning.
Fleetwood noted that with zoning rescinded, the City of Princeton and Town of Haubstadt would regain their zoning jurisdiction within a two-mile radius of corporate limits.
Cecil “Bob” Allen said companies like Toyota, Vuteq and other industries came to the county because there is no zoning.
Following the public comment, Fleetwood asked for a motion to rescind zoning, which was offered by Montgomery and supported by Fleetwood.
Commissioner Mary Key said she believes the language in the ordinance is incorrect. “It says we (commissioners in 2020) attempted to pass zoning. We did pass it. It implies that everything that was done was either illegally done or improperly done, or whatever – and that’s not true. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
The motion passed 2-1 with Key dissenting, and applause from several members of the audience.
Commissioners also approved first reading of the wind and solar safety ordinances by a 2-1 margin, with Key dissenting. County Attorney Jason Spindler said the second reading will be addressed at the 5 p.m. March 16 meeting.
Members also adopted a resolution offered by Montgomery and supported by Fleetwood, staying the work of the APC, by a 2-1 margin, with Key dissenting.
“Since you are going to rescind the (zoning) ordinance, I’d like to see the APC help on some of this other,” she said, referring to the solar and wind safety ordinances. “But that’s your choice.”
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