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Elkhart County Commissioners approve solar zoning ordinance

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Lauren Chapman
/
IPB News

The Elkhart County Commissioners amended the county zoning ordinance Monday to include guidelines for large solar projects. That’s after the commissioners turned down a proposed 150-megawatt solar development near Millersburg last fall.

County planning director Chris Godlewski told the commissioners that the new amendments lay out requirements for companies that want to build solar developments in the county.

“The main point of this ordinance is to handle big arrays,” he said. “Someone would apply for rezoning of an array over 10 acres in any district, go through the public process of the plan commission and then come to the commissioners for a final decision.”

Arrays over 10 acres would be subject to a height restriction of 25 feet and must not be audible from neighboring residential or agricultural properties.

The amended ordinance also requires setbacks of 50 to 200 feet, depending on the adjacent property or road. A fence of at least 6 feet is required around the entire panel area, as well as the most stringent buffering in the county’s existing zoning ordinance.

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Elkhart County zoning ordinance

The amended ordinance would allow building and roof-mounted solar arrays without a special use permit in most cases.

Small ground arrays — up to 1,500 square feet — are also permitted by right in all districts. Arrays between 1,500 and 3,000 square feet require a special use permit in agricultural, residential and neighborhood business districts.

Arrays between 3,000 square feet and 10 acres aren’t allowed in those three districts. However, they’re permitted by right in manufacturing districts and allowed with a special use permit in general and heavy business districts.

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Elkhart County zoning ordinance

In reviewing site plans, county commissioners and members of the plan commission could add modifications to landscaping, screening and other project elements.

The two bodies could also require agreements to manage the operation and maintenance of the array, emergency services and response in the event of an equipment failure, and the eventual decommission of the array and restoration of the land.

“I think this ordinance covers any aspect — whether mandatory or voluntary — when you’re looking at an ordinance for applications,” Godlewski said. “It seems as comprehensive as it can be for a first-time ordinance for the county.”

County officials conducted three public meetings in January and February to gather feedback on the proposed amendments.

Some public commenters expressed concern Monday that the final ordinance didn’t clearly state who would be responsible for removing solar equipment and restoring the land if a solar company were to pull out — concerns echoed by Commissioner Brad Rogers.

“I realize that every project can be different and we’re going to have different issues come up,” he said. “But I think we need to put adequate provisions for a bond to ensure the county and its residents are not left with large, unfunded issues related to waste or pollution remediation.”

However, most commenters — including representatives from Hoosiers for Renewables, the Indiana Land & Liberty Coalition — said the requirements struck a solid middle ground between landowners who choose to support solar projects and the owners of adjacent properties.

“It will allow companies that are interested in coming in to look at our properties,” Commissioner Frank Lucchese said. “And it’s still the right of the property owners to do what they want to do with it. It [also] gives us some guidelines to help the neighbors.”

The commissioners voted 2 to 1 to approve the solar zoning amendments, with Commissioner Brad Rogers voting against them.

Contact Gemma at gdicarlo@wvpe.org or follow her on Twitter at @gemma_dicarlo.

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Gemma DiCarlo comes to Indiana by way of Athens, Georgia. She graduated from the University of Georgia in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and certificates in New Media and Sustainability. She has radio experience from her time as associate producer of Athens News Matters, the flagship public affairs program at WUGA-FM.