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County pushes ‘pause’ on new solar farms

AUBURN – DeKalb County Commissioners on Monday declared a 60-day moratorium on applications for new commercial solar farms in the county.

The action comes in response to reports that a private company is signing leases for a 1,600-acre solar farm south of Butler.

The purpose of the moratorium is “to give the county an opportunity to study” what should be included in an ordinance to regulate solar farms, said County Attorney James McCanna. “It’s not pro or con.”

The moratorium does not affect solar installations for residential use, McCanna said.

Commissioners acted after listening to rural Butler resident Colben Steury express his concerns about the proposed solar farm.

Steury said the solar farm developers are leasing ground from landowners near the Steel Dynamics Inc. complex in a low-key process.

“All of this is done without any of the neighboring property owners’ knowledge,” Steury said.

“No one knows the other side of it,” Steury said about potential downsides of solar farms.

Steury called the commissioners’ attention to a Facebook site entitled “Stop Solar Farmers DeKalb County Indiana.” It includes a link to sign a petition opposing the proposed solar farm.

The solar developers plan to inform neighboring landowners at a “town hall meeting” only after the solar farm is approved, Steury said.

“It’s inevitable it’s going to bring down the price of our house in a resale,” if the home were surrounded by high fences with barbed wire, Steury said.

County Commissioners President Bill Hartman said he believes county officials could approve setbacks of 500 feet from homes for solar panels.

Hartman questioned whether a setback of 150 feet from property lines might be too much

Steury said one Indiana county’s ordinance allows high fences at the property lines of a solar farm, even though the solar panels are farther away.

“You can put setbacks for fences. Ours is currently zero,” county planning director Chris Gaumer said.

Steury also suggested involving the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in the discussion. He said the proposed solar farm would eliminate a 100-acre woods near his home.

“Decommissioning is probably the single biggest issue” for a solar ordinance, Commissioner Mike Watson said.

When a solar field reaches the end of its use, “Who cleans it up?” Commissioner Todd Sanderson asked.

“There’s some materials that are in solar panels that we need to be very careful with,” McCanna advised. He said some solar leases could make it difficult to hold the developers of solar farms responsible for cleanup.

McCanna presented commissioners with his preliminary research on solar-power ordinances in other Indiana counties.

“I want to have some very candid discussions with each of you,” Gaumer told the commissioners. He proposed meeting with each commissioner individually “to get a sense of where you stand.”

“I don’t want to have thousands of people showing up in a meeting somewhere, yelling at the commissioners … the Plan Commission … each other,” Gaumer said. He proposed that the county should craft “an ordinance shaped around the citizens.”

The county’s ordinance governing wind turbines essentially bans them with its quarter-mile setback distance from homes, Gaumer said. He wants to research how different setback distances would affect solar farms.

“I think people were really put off by wind turbines. There was huge opposition” to a proposed wind farm in northwestern DeKalb County, McCanna recalled about a controversy in 2012-2013.

“I didn’t perceive that as much with solar. I think the county needs to stay neutral,” Hartman said.

“I think we need to embrace solar, because it’s coming … but we need to protect the residents,” Sanderson said.