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County slows new solar farms but won't pause them for a year

Provided/American Public Power Association

St. Joseph County will take a harder look at proposed solar farm projects from now on but it won’t block them altogether for a while as some people wanted.

The county council Tuesday night voted unanimously for a bill requiring companies that want to build solar farms to obtain a special use zoning permit. Currently they can be built on any agriculturally zoned land.

The new approval process will involve public hearings that would prevent what’s happened near North Liberty, where North Carolina-based Hexagon Energy has quietly reached deals with property owners to lease their land for solar panels.

Whether the new ordinance will stop the Hexagon project remains to be seen. To beat the council vote, Hexagon, along with the University of Notre Dame and two other businesses, on Monday and Tuesday filed applications with the county to build new solar energy systems. Area Plan Director Abby Wiles told the council that area plan’s attorney still must review Hexagon’s application.

But Wiles said if the attorney decides the application is complete, Hexagon won’t need to obtain a special use permit.

Smilax Road resident Robert Ax told the council that the Hexagon panels would be placed across the street from his home and he wished he’d have been notified about it.

"You talk about 250 feet? I wish it was 250 miles," Ax said. "Discussions for these projects have been ongoing since 2020 yet this is the first we've heard about a proposed project feet from our residence that will destroy the tranquil, rural atmosphere that we've enjoyed here for the past 18 years."

Ax and others spoke for and against solar farms for more than two hours. He asked the council to pass a bill pausing any county approvals of new solar farms for a year. The bill was sponsored by Republican council members Amy Drake, Joe Thomas and Randy Figg. But the council voted 5-4 against the moratorium, with Republican Dan Schaetzle joining the four Democrats.

The council also unanimously approved changes to the solar farm ordinance. Solar panels can’t be placed within 500 feet of a home, up from the current 250-foot minimum setback. And panels must be screened with landscaping if they’re near residential areas, parks or nature preserves.

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).