Increased setbacks and other items were added this week to proposed updates to Johnson County’s renewable energy ordinance.
The Johnson County Plan Commission on Monday discussed a zoning ordinance update that would add solar energy development standards for the first time, and add and change standards for wind energy developments.
The commission will continue to talk about edits individually with the county’s planning department, to perfect the draft ahead of a special meeting scheduled at 6 p.m. June 7.
A few changes were proposed for commercial solar setbacks compared to the original draft.
With the change, solar arrays would need to be at least 150 feet from the property line of a non-participating landowner, 100 feet from the edge of a public road and must not encroach upon a drainage ditch or regulated drain.
The original draft required solar arrays be at least 30 feet from the property line of a non-participating landowner, 75 feet from a legal drain or ditch, and 100 feet from the center of a public road.
Other setbacks remained the same.
For solar, if adjacent property is zoned residential, or if the adjacent property is zoned agricultural but has a residence within 500 feet, the setback would increase to 200 feet. A landowner participating in a commercial solar project could place panels as close as 150 feet from their home.
For large wind turbines, the setback is twice the turbine’s height from property lines, and 1,000 feet from all buildings not belonging to the landowner.
A new standard also allows adjoining landowners – if they’re both involved in a renewable energy project – to waive the property line setbacks. This would apply to both wind and solar projects.
Additional protections for private drainage systems were also added at the request of Gregg Cantwell, county surveyor, who is also a plan commission member. With the changes, all commercial energy projects will come before the Johnson County Drainage Board for approval, and the developer must not encroach upon mutual or private drainage tile.
There was some discussion about fencing for solar developments, but the commission ultimately decided to leave the wording as is to allow the developer to determine what is necessary to protect their investment. A requirement that the fencing have bottom clearance for wildlife to get underneath was removed.
Commission members also discussed what method should be used to make sure developers follow through on their decommissioning plans if a project ever stops producing power. Members asked legal counsel to research ways to protect the county in that situation.
A requirement that solar projects have a groundcover was added at the request of Fred Williams, a rural Franklin resident who was concerned solar fields could be a jungle of weeds if there is no standard. The specifics of that standard weren’t ironed out at the meeting, but will be determined before the commission’s next meeting.
During the public hearing Monday, Williams and a Shelby County resident spoke to the commission about their concerns with commercial renewable energy developments and suggested more changes to the ordinance.
Williams asked for a cap on solar development acreage, and said he would hate to lose a significant amount of farmland to energy production.
“I’m not against solar if it is placed in the right place. To me, prime farm ground is not the right place. I drive by the solar facility on (State Road) 135 everyday. That’s 10 or 12 acres. It is hard to imagine a solar facility 100 times that size and have to look at that everyday,” Williams said. “You have to take a hard look at this.”
The ordinance does not contain a cap on development, and the plan commission has not considered adding one, said Chad Bowman, a plan commission member.
Though letters have been sent to rural residents about a potential renewable energy project, no developers have approached the county’s planning office with plans or questions, said Michelle Hansard, the county’s planning director.
Large commercial renewable energy projects are permitted in areas zoned for agriculture and industrial, with a special exception approved by the Johnson County Board of Zoning Appeals, Hansard said. If approved, the board of zoning appeals will refer to the new standards to evaluate any future proposals. The standards discussed in the ordinance only apply to commercial projects.
County residents only need to get a permit if they want to install solar panels for personal power generation on the roof of their home, garage or barn, Hansard said. Putting up free-standing solar panels for personal use is typically allowed without a permit, she said.
Small wind turbines are permitted with a special exception in all zoning areas except high-density residential classifications R-3, R-4 and R-5.
Micro wind turbines are permitted with a special exception in all zoning classifications.
The ordinance is expected to be finalized at the plan commission’s next meeting and forwarded to the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, which would review the ordinance at its June 14 meeting.
County officials hope to have the ordinance fully passed before July 1, a date which could be important if state legislators make another attempt at a renewable energy bill next year, Hansard said. July 1 is the day that lawmakers commonly use as a deadline for legislation, as new state laws typically take effect on that day each year.
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