March 18, 2021
Editorials, Indiana

Local energy: Counties must be heard in crafting wind, solar policy

Editorial | The Journal Gazette | Thursday, March 18, 2021 |

Legislation aimed at shaping the future of renewable energy in Indiana is instead renewing tensions between state lawmakers and counties upset the General Assembly is trying to usurp their power.

At issue is House Bill 1381, a seemingly well-intentioned measure that would implement the first statewide regulations for solar and wind projects. Authored by Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, the 63-page bill would regulate things such as height, setback requirements, “sound level limitations” and project decommissioning.

The bill says local governments would be able to set their own restrictions, but they could not be tougher than those outlined in the legislation. It passed the House last month on a 58-38 vote and was sent to the Senate.

“So, we’ve tried to make this as friendly as possible and share responsibility with the locals,” Soliday said before the vote, according to the Indiana Environmental Reporter.

Dozens of the state’s 92 counties don’t see it that way, and there’s reason for county-level officials to question the effort after past moves by the legislature to circumvent local control. Nearly 60 counties – including Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Wells and Whitley in northeast Indiana – have passed resolutions opposing the bill.

Huntington County Commissioner Tom Wall, president of the Indiana Association of County Commissioners, said local citizens “should have the right to voice their opinion on what is being built in and around their properties.”

“The passing of this bill will remove the ability of the county to set their own standards,” he said in a statement issued by the IACC and the Association of Indiana Counties. “Commercial and industrial projects can reduce the value of a neighbor’s property, so the decision about where these projects are located should be made at the community level.”

The bill is assigned to the Senate Utilities Committee, where a hearing has not been scheduled.

The General Assembly is no stranger to crafting bills to restrict the authority of towns, cities and counties.

This year – in addition to HB 1381 – legislation has moved to allow the state attorney general to seek a special prosecutor appointed by a judge to take over cases if local prosecutors choose not to prosecute a crime. Another bill says local units can’t regulate child-operated beverage operations, such as lemonade stands.

Lawmakers also overrode the veto of a 2020 bill that bars local units from regulating most parts of a landlord-tenant relationship. That was aimed at Indianapolis – a frequent target for this type of legislation – but affects the entire state.

The Allen County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution in February opposing the renewable energy regulation bill.

“(D)ecisions regarding wind and solar development are best made by the citizens living in the community, rather than by the wind and solar industry or state officials who live outside the community,” the document says.

Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters and other opponents insist they’re not anti-renewable energy but pro-local control.

“It’s a matter of home rule,” Peters said this week. “What (lawmakers) are effectively doing is saying, ‘We in Indianapolis … know how to plan your communities better than you do.’ (The) General Assembly continues to push for one-size-fits-all solutions. These really aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions.”

The Hoosier Environmental Council generally supports the bill, but organization leaders say local government agencies can play a role in regulating some things, including the land on which solar farms might be built – something not addressed in the bill. Jesse Kharbanda, the council’s executive director, said Wednesday that would maximize solar power benefits as well as things such as stormwater control and soil and water conservation.

It’s commendable that state lawmakers are doing the forward-thinking work to map the state’s energy future. But much of the groundwork for that future could be laid in counties across the state, not in Indianapolis. The input of towns, cities and counties should be part of the decision-making.

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