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Elkhart County Commissioners approve zoning change for $120 million solar project near Millersburg

Solar panels gather sunlight in Florida.
John Raoux
/
AP
Solar panels gather sunlight in Florida.

After blocking it last year, the Elkhart County Commissioners approved a zoning change and economic development agreement for a proposed $120 million solar farm Monday.

The solar farm would cover 873 acres of agricultural land south of Millersburg and generate up to 150 megawatts of power — enough for almost 16,000 homes.

Kansas City-based energy firm Savion has secured 30-year leases with the two property owners, and accounting firm Baker Tilly estimates it could bring in almost $22 million in property taxes over its lifespan.

The Elkhart County Commissioners unanimously voted down the proposal last year due to concerns from nearby residents. But earlier this year, the commissioners approved a new zoning ordinance governing potential large solar projects. And Savion brought its proposal back Monday in line with that ordinance.

Development director Sara Mills said the solar panels will be set back at least 300 feet from nearby homes, more than the 200 feet the ordinance requires.

There’s also a vegetation buffer — 10 trees every 100 feet — and the 340 acres without panels will be covered with native grasses and pollinator friendly plants. That will reduce runoff by two thirds compared to now and improve soil quality.

“After the project is decommissioned, it can be returned to farmland,” Mills said. “This is unlike other uses that are committed by right on agricultural land, like developing a housing subdivision.”

During decommissioning, the company will remove all equipment except form the utility substation and any roads the landowners want to keep.

The project takes up less than half of one percent of the county’s agricultural land, and any operating wells on site will be capped. A pole-and-wire fence will be installed instead of a chain link fence, which Mills said would fit better into the rural area.

Savion is also working with area first responders to develop an emergency response plan — most importantly for if there’s a grass or brush fire — and will post a securitized bond to pay for the decommissioning costs.

Numerous members of the public spoke about the project during the nearly four-hour meeting Monday. Supporters said it would be a good source of renewable energy and touted the economic benefits.

Those opposed raised concerns over fires and emergencies, the removal of agricultural land, and potential impacts on property values and the area’s rural character.

Commissioner Suzie Weirick said the vote was a hard decision. But she and Frank Lucchese approved the zoning change with conditions of high panel quality, no energy storage on site, the setbacks and a commitment to finalizing acceptable agreements on emergency response, operation, decommissioning and road use during construction.

In addition, Weirick cited wanting to avoid outsize “government oversight.”

“I have never seen an industry come under such scrutiny as solar,” Weirick said. “We have multiple chemical manufacturing plants — we do not put them under a fraction of the microscope that this group has gone under. We have wood manufacturing, same thing.”

The commissioners then approved the project’s economic development agreement by the same margins, with Brad Rogers voting against both.

Miller said Savion is still seeking a buyer for the energy that will be produced at the site, but construction of the solar farm could start as early as next fall.

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.