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Cass County updates alternative energy ordinances as company plans solar farm

Cass County has been redefining its rules on solar and wind power fields since June, and an energy company has been talking to landowners around Walton about leasing land for a potential 1,400 to 1,600 acre solar energy center.

The last vote for the changes in the county’s alternative power ordinances happened at this week’s Cass County Commissioners meeting.

The energy company, NextEra Energy of Florida, plans to have an open house meeting in Walton about the project from 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 28.

The meeting will be in the Walton Town Hall, 106 S. Depot St.

The reason for the changes to the county’s ordinances wind energy conversion system standards and solar energy system standards is to protect home rule, according to Cass County Planning Executive Director Arin Shaver.

“We’re just being proactive,” Shaver said.

In April, the Indiana legislature considered (but eventually didn’t pass) House Bill 1381.

That bill originally would have negated local laws concerning wind and solar energy operations in favor of a statewide standards, including where wind and solar fields could be placed.

The final version that was killed gave county governments more control and grandfathered in their existing regulations and restrictions, giving pre-existing local rules priority.

Shaver said although Cass County passed its wind and solar ordinances, it can still adapt them as necessary.

“Zoning ordinances can always change,” she said.

The Cass County Plan Commission passed the changes to the local ordinance at its June 1 meeting but had to consider a change in July 6.

At the June 21 County Commissioners meeting, the commissioners voted in favor of the changes to the wind power ordinance but also voted to send the solar power ordinance back to the plan commission.

Commissioner Mike Stajduhar (R, District 1) asked that the plan commission add that solar collectors cannot be more than 22.5 feet from the ground to the highest point.

As of Monday, all changes to both ordinances have been passed.

The changes primarily are about safety and nearness to roads and neighbors.

Shaver said that with the changes, Cass will be ready for any possible project coming.

When asked July 1 about any proposed solar or wind projects for Cass County, Shaver said, “I don’t have anything in my office.”

However, NextEra Energy has been active in south Cass County since spring.

The company based in Juno Beach, Florida, has been contacting farmers and land owners in the Walton area to discuss land leases for a solar energy center.

“We’re still in the early stages,” said NextEra Senior Communications Specialist Conlan Kennedy. “We’re still negotiating on land.”

In addition to Wednesday’s public open house, where NextEra intends to introduce the company’s team and talk about the project and potential benefits to the community, the company had a booth at the Cass County Fair’s Merchants buildings this year.

Matthew Johnson, senior project manager for development with NextEra, said people have been positive.

The company is having public events because it wants to be transparent, Johnson said.

“Working with the community is important to us,” he said.

The land leases are all voluntary, he said.

First, the company will negotiate a three-year option on the land, and that will be done to see if the solar field will work on the land available.

Engineers will craft the most efficient way of utilizing the land, and if the project continues, NextEra will negotiate the leases and their length with farmers.

The project will also need local and state approval before it can begin.

However, it could be in Cass as early as December 2023, Kennedy said.

NextEra will put $232 million into capital investment for the project, and it estimates it will give Cass $30 million in tax revenues over 30 years.

Construction will bring about 225 jobs to the area, and that will boost the local economy with the workers’ spending on gas, restaurants and other needs.

The company has more on the potential project at a website for it, AppleseedSolar.com.