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Family considered options before agreeing to solar project

Ranger Power will bring another special variance request before the Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals in 2019. The company wants to create a solar farm in northeastern Shelby County that will produce nearly 200 megawatts of energy.

By JEFF BROWN - jbrown@shelbynews.com

A simple knock on the door brought an intriguing offer to Charlene Shingleton.

Ranger Power was interested in building a solar project in northeastern Shelby County and was seeking land to lease. 

“My first instinct was NO,” explained Shingleton. “But when they talked to us and they explained it and we did our research and we went to our lawyer ... then it started to click.”

The Shingleton family, who farm 800 acres in Shelby County, agreed to lease 180 acres to Ranger Power as part of a much-larger project – one that is pitting neighbor against neighbor in and around Morristown and Gwynneville.

With interest mounting in early 2018, the Shelby County Plan Commission approved an ordinance regulating solar energy production in Shelby County. Ranger Power moved forward striking deals with land owners to amass enough property to house a quantity of solar panels that would produce nearly 200 megawatts of energy.

The next step was getting the Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to approve a special variance to allow solar panels on agricultural land. Concern from residents not involved in the project mounted as the BZA meeting approached on Nov. 13.

At that 3-hour-plus meeting, which was moved to the Strand Theatre in downtown Shelbyville to accommodate the expected large gathering, the BZA denied Ranger Power’s petition by a 3-2 vote. 

That did not end the proposed solar farm. Ranger Power took the feedback it received and restructured its plan and has re-filed for another variance. No date has yet been announced when the BZA will again consider the project.

The process has left those on both sides of the project frustrated. 

“The first thing I get upset with is I have my property rights,” said Shingleton, who lives on E 700 North in Shelbyville. “I’m a landowner. We have the right to farm whatever we want. So if we want to do corn, soybeans, hay or a solar farm, that should be part of our right.”

Opponents of the solar farm cite potential drainage issues from the land housing the panels, the sheer footprint of the project and the unknown entity of safety surrounding a project such as Ranger Power’s which is expected to exist for at least four decades.

Shingleton understands the concerns. Her family discussed all of them before making its decision to join the project.

“It involves my brothers and sisters and I and my mother. We’re all in this together and we talk about it a lot. We talked a lot about it before we did anything. We wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do,” she said. “We kept coming back with the future generations ... it’s what needs to happen. We have to get past the money part. We have to get past who is technically involved. We have to open up to what the future is for everyone. We need solar power. We need clean, green energy.”

The Shingletons will still rotate corn and soybeans on their remaining 620 acres and have 180 acres creating solar energy.

“(Farming) has been tough. We had the high time. Now we’re at the low time. It’s going to be tough for a lot of farmers, us included, depending on how long it stays down,” said Shingleton. “That wasn’t our biggest factor for doing it. We looked at it as the future for my kids and my grandkids. If we don’t change what we’re doing, what is life going to be like around here even in 10 years?”

Shingleton, who lost her father, a farmer, at the age of 54 to lymphoma cancer she said caused by Roundup, has extensively researched the project to alleviate her own concerns about solar energy. And she believes Ranger Power has gone above and beyond to answer any of her questions.

“I asked about the solar panels and I researched about the solar panels because I didn’t want to be my dad,” she said. “I’m 56. I don’t want to die.”

While disappointed in the BZA’s November decision, Ranger Power will bring a revised plan – one that addresses concerns over landscaping and drainage, the proximity of the solar panels to current homes and a decommission plan – to another meeting with the expectation it will meet all the criteria established by county officials.

“We feel that the first go around our application met all the county requirements but there are always ways to improve things,” said Pete Endres, development manager for Ranger Power, in a December interview with The Shelbyville News. “So we took the feedback we received, not only from the BZA members but other community members and neighbors to the project that came forth, and we redesigned the project.”

In the end, having the ability to be part of a green energy project seemed like the right thing to do to Charlene Shingleton.

“We need to be thinking of future generations ... power wise,” she said. “We can’t live off fossil (fuels) anymore. We’ve got to go to green energy. Why not be part of the new future?”

Even if it is not a popular decision amongst some neighbors.

“We are very confident in what we’ve decided to do,” she said. “We feel they are violating our rights in different ways because they are not allowing us to choose the crop we want to use. It’s basically still a crop. It’s not agricultural, we’re not corn and beans, it is just going to be solar panels out there.”

Neighbor vs. Neighbor

Ranger Power's proposed solar project has divided neighbors for and against the project in northeastern Shelby County. Following the Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals' denial of Ranger Power's special variance request on Nov. 13, the company has restructured its plan and will step before the BZA sometime again in early 2019.

In the Dec. 13 edition of The Shelbyville News, Pete Endres, development manager for Ranger Power, explained the new plan and his hope that the company can find a fair and manageable deal for all involved.

In today's edition, Charlene Shingleton, who is leasing 180 acres of farmland to Ranger Power, addresses her family's feelings over the project.

TSN is currently setting up interviews with family's opposed to the project. Once complete, a story will publish detailing their concerns.