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Elkhart County Commissioners deny zoning change, ending plans for $120 million solar farm project

solar panels
Jennifer Weingart
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The Elkhart County Commissioners voted Monday to deny the needed zoning changes for a proposed solar farm project. That’s after the county council unanimously approved the project’s economic development agreement Saturday.

The $120-million-dollar project by Kansas City-based energy firm Savion would have built a solar farm on 850 acres of agricultural land south of Millersburg. 

It would have generated up to 150 megawatts of power, enough for almost 16,000 homes. The company had secured 30-year leases with the two property owners, and if they decided not to renew, the land would have been returned with the equipment removed.

Lead developer Sara Mills told WVPE last week that accounting firm Baker Tilly estimated the project could bring in almost $22 million in property taxes over 35 years.

“Once the project is installed, it’s maintained, but it’s basically just operating,” Mills told WVPE on Friday. “So, the county can count on those tax revenues for that 30 to 40-year life of the project.”

Mills also said Savion planned to put in “vegetative screening” to help conceal the proposed solar farm from local residents.

The economic development agreement for the project was approved unanimously on Saturday by the Elkhart County Council. It also had support from the county’s Economic Development Corporation and the planning commission.

The next step was zoning changes for the land, but the Elkhart County Commissioners voted unanimously Monday morning to reject those changes.

The project originally came before the commissioners in August, but it was tabled until October to allow for further discussion.

Before offering the motion to reject the zoning changes, Commissioner Brad Rogers said there were “positives and negatives” to the project.

“I do generally support solar and other renewable forms of energy generation,” Rogers said. “However, not all scientists agree that solar is as environmentally friendly as some proponents believe.”

He also cited the concerns of nearby residents, which included property values and worries that the project would ruin the area’s rural character.

“Although there is support for this project throughout the county, those supporters are not living in the area of the project,” Rogers said. “Those living in the area overwhelmingly oppose it.”

Commissioners Frank Lucchese and Suzanne Weirick cited similar reasons for why they opposed the zoning change.

Reached by phone after the vote, lead developer Sara Mills said Savion is disappointed in the result but thankful to everyone who worked hard on the project.

“This is the first large-scale solar project that Elkhart County has considered, and there’s been a lot of work to build awareness and engage with the community and elected officials,” Mills said.

Mills said the project is now on hold, but it could come back if Elkhart County creates a specific framework for solar projects.

“Overall, public support has been very positive,” Mills said. “I remain hopeful that the county will outline a framework under which the project can be considered for approval in the future.”

Savion was interested in the Elkhart County location due to the lease agreements from the two local landowners and the land’s proximity to American Electric Power’s high capacity transmission lines.

“We can't really pick up the project and move it somewhere else,” Mills said. “But we’d certainly look at other counties that have a clear framework for how solar could be approved, in Indiana or elsewhere, for other projects in the future.”

This story has been updated with comment from Sara Mills of Savion.

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Jakob Lazzaro comes to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.