The Howard County commissioners say they fear the potential loss of local control over the approval of wind and solar projects if House Bill 1381, as currently written, were to become state law.
All three Howard County Commissioners the Tribune spoke with this past week expressed concerns regarding HB 1381, which sets statewide standards for siting solar and wind farms but allows counties to permit and review the process. But if a county denies a company that meets these standards, the company can potentially bypass the county and appeal to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission and get approval for the project.
The bill, if passed and signed into law, could potentially have a huge impact on Howard County, which is being targeted for a 2,000-acre solar farm just outside Greentown by French multinational electric utility company Engie.
County residents who are opposed to the solar farm have expressed their concern to county commissioners about the bill at a handful of recent meetings, with most seeing it as a way for renewable energy companies to skirt local boards and public opposition.
Commissioner Brady Bray feels the same way.
“I’m afraid that’s what they’re going to do, and our hands will be tied,” he said. “We’ve told the wind companies no, and we’re kind of telling the solar companies no with restrictions, and now they’re going around us. I think the wind and solar companies are kind of like the kid that didn’t get permission from dad so now they’re asking mom.”
County commissioners approve or disapprove of each new rezoning request for the unincorporated parts of their respective county, and, thus, have the final say in large scale projects such as a solar farm since most companies need the land they plan to develop to be rezoned.
In 2015, Howard County commissioners approved amendments to the county’s wind ordinance that upped the setback requirements from 1,500 feet to 2,000 feet from the nearest occupied building on a property.
The ordinance also required any potential turbines to be quieter by 10 decibels than previously required and switched wind turbines from a permitted-use structure to a special exception, which requires a public hearing for every turbine that would be built. The changes make it very difficult, if not impossible, for a wind energy project to be developed in the county.
HB 1381’s author, Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said that the bill would eliminate the patchwork regulations for wind and solar that varied from county to county – though only 40 or so counties produced enough wind to be viable.
“Almost every large corporation in the state is saying they want renewable,” Soliday said when introducing the bill for the first time. “There is demand and there are businesses deciding not to come to Indiana because we don’t have renewable energy.”
At least 32 of those 40 counties, mostly in northern Indiana, have banned developments, affecting the rest of the state’s ability to produce wind energy, Soliday said, and contributed to why the state has to buy up to 80% of its electricity from other states on some days. At least two large companies have lost millions trying to establish wind farms just for counties to vote down their proposals.
“We know there’s a market. We know it affects jobs and people coming to our state and people staying in our state,” Soliday said.
But Commissioner Jack Dodd is afraid that the loss of local control over such projects could end up opening the possibility of similar bills being considered and passed by the state legislature.
“Anything that takes away local control is not good for our county because that puts it in the hands of the state,” Dodd said. “Now, I’m not saying solar is good, bad, right or wrong. I’m saying that anything that takes away local control is bad because we were elected to represent the citizens of our district, of our county, and this bill takes this away.”
HB 1381 has become one of the most controversial pieces of legislation still circulating in the chamber of the General Assembly. It passed the House on a 58-38 vote and is now in the Senate, where it has received its first hearing in the Utilities Committee.
Supporters of the bill have primarily been businesses and some of Indiana’s largest employers, who want to purchase renewable energy but are limited in doing so in Indiana.
But more than 60 counties across the state have passed a resolution formally opposing the bill, including commissioners in both Tipton and Miami counties.
The Howard County commissioners have written a letter to the General Assembly in support of local control but have not formally passed a resolution and do not plan to do so in the future.
The board received criticism from Brad Semon, of Greentown, who wanted to know why the board refused to put that in an official resolution. He also commended the board on reaching out to Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, and talking to the senator regarding his and others’ concerns about the bill.
“I feel like if we do it, we’re on board, showing opposition to this,” Semon said. “There’s strength in numbers. I just don’t understand why we haven’t written a resolution.”
The commissioners defended themselves by arguing that resolutions have no teeth and that they’d rather personally talk to representatives and make lobbying efforts at the Statehouse.
“Resolutions are nice, but they hold no weight,” Commissioner Paul Wyman said at the board’s March 1 meeting. “I have been spending my time on the phone with people. I’ve been spending my time in meetings. I work better that way.”
In an interview with the Tribune on Friday, Wyman said he understands the state wants to grow its renewable energy capacity and have a plan in place and believes it’s smart to do that, but also believes state and local governments can and should work together more on that plan.
“The current bill that’s before us doesn’t have much influence from local government, especially on things like infrastructure, negotiation power with the company and the opportunity to make sure we are planning these types of development, meaning that they end up in places in our community that make sense longterm,” he said. “From my standpoint, those are the types of things we seem to be focused on, and I feel if we all work together we could figure out a plan that would not only be best for the state of Indiana but also for local communities going forward.”
The fate of HB 1381 is to be decided. It could head to the Senate floor for a vote as currently written or be completely different after amendments to the bill are proposed and either voted in or down. Or it may never reach the Senate floor.
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