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Solar farm opponents seek 2nd favorable ruling

The proposal to build a 1,000-plus acre solar farm facility in northeastern Shelby County has pitted neighbor against neighbor. The home of Ralf Edwards, shown here along 700 North, would be completely surrounded by solar panels if the project is greenlighted Tuesday at the Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals meeting at Shelbyville High School.

By JEFF BROWN - jbrown@shelbynews.com

The northeastern Shelby County residents opposed to a large solar farm facility in their backyard won their November battle with Ranger Power.

On Tuesday, the New York-based company will deliver a new presentation to the Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals again seeking a special variance request that would allow the creation of a solar farm on more than 1,000 acres of farmland in Shelby County.

This issue has divided an agricultural-based community and pitted neighbor against neighbor in support, for and against, of a growing trend within the solar industry – asking farmers to eschew crops for solar panels.

Ranger Power currently has lease deals in place with several landowners in the area to install solar panels on their farmland. But that has angered many residents in the area who believe there are not enough positive qualities of this size of a project to warrant it going forward.

“Because I’m from the farm and lived there all my life in the country, I think this totally takes away from what ‘the country’ means,” said Phil Stout. “And to think people are going to move out there that want the country, the birds and wildlife and fields of corn and beans ... they are not going to move out there. 

“Other people I’ve talked to, maybe it’s illegal and maybe it’s not, but sometimes it has to be back to common sense. You don’t make a decision just because it’s a legal thing. Some things you have to think about because it affects this neighborhood, Shelby County, and the schools.”

Many of the residents against the project have no issue with solar energy. Their complaints are more about the sheer size and scope of the project, the financial ramifications of repurposing farmland, and property values.

At the November BZA meeting, the variance needed was denied 3-2. Ranger Power listened to the concerns of those opposed and altered the project. The company will present its new design Tuesday.

Those opposed will again point out concerns over such a large project that provides an initial financial windfall for Shelby County, but is not as profitable as it sounds when factoring in the 30-plus year lifespan of the projected solar facility.

“Are we concerned about the agriculture, the retail business, even with 1,200 to 1,500 acres? What will it take away from that?” asked Stout, who would be living next to a large tract of solar panels. “It’s going to affect the retail business, whether it’s the seed or fertilizer or herbicides or fuel. I think when you measure out 40 years, the $15.7 million will probably be a wash or less if that land stayed farming for 40 years.”

Ranger Power has agreed to pay a one-time fee of $1.6 million to the county with $600,000 to go to the Shelby Eastern Schools system, which has publicly backed the deal. And the expense to build the solar farm will be extensive and beneficial to Shelby County. But once the facility is operational, there will be minimal staffing needs. 

“What is the real benefit to the county of this thing?” asked Rex Kuhn, who also would have property near the proposed facility. “There is a short term benefit. As far as long term number of employees, it will displace a similar, if not more, man hours of work with the crops being gone either through the farmer, farm laborer, your co-ops, and all your input suppliers. None of these dollars will come back into the county.”

Ranger Power, which has struck a deal with Wabash Valley Power to disperse the electricity generated by the new facility, intends for the land to revert back to the farmers once the solar facility is decommissioned, whenever that time is deemed appropriate. Its deal with Wabash Valley Power runs through 2057.

One debate Tuesday will be whether a solar farm is agricultural-based and how will it be taxed over the life of the project.

“The property needs to be re-zoned and not a special variance,” said Ralf Edwards, a property owner that will have solar panels surrounding his nearly 175-year-old homestead. “Special variances were originally designed for the farmer that wanted to do something special on his property that was out of the norm. Nothing of this magnitude. Thirty years is not something for a special variance.”

Edwards’ biggest concern is how property values will be affected by the project.

“I moved out into the country to be in the country,” said the retired Marion County police officer who is nearing a second retirement as a union carpenter. “I don’t mind seeing corn. I don’t mind seeing beans. Animals can still run out there. But when you put a solar farm out there, it’s just like putting warehouses out there.”

Edwards has everything he owns sunk into his 5-acre plot. His goal was to retire, sell the property and move to a warmer climate to enjoy the rest of his life. Now, his country homestead could end up surrounded by solar panels with, in his opinion, little benefit to Shelby County.

“If Shelby County really got something out of this, if it was going to provide power to us out here, I might not be so bad with it,” admitted Edwards. “If it would set back about 2,000 feet (from my property), I wouldn’t have a problem with it. They are talking about this thing being directly across the street from me, around me 360 degrees. So I’m going to do everything in my power to fight this thing.”

Kuhn insists his family’s issue with this project is not about property rights.

“I’m a firm believer in property rights, probably far above what the average person would be,” he said. “But this isn’t a matter of simply your property rights or mine or hers. 

“It would seem like it would change when you go from 1 to 1,700 acres ... now you’re affecting a lot bigger things. Now it’s a project. You essentially gave up your property rights when you signed the document to take the check. Now it’s a project. Now we have a huge chunk that is involved. Now you are changing not only your little part of the world, you’re affecting everyone around you in a scale.”

While the farmland is some of the best in Shelby County, according to Kuhn, drainage is continually an issue – and an issue Ranger Power must address once it starts installing solar panels.

“It is a very poorly drained area,” said Kuhn. “Some of the best land in the county but it is poorly drained. 

“What you do on your tract or what I do on mine, there is an intricate pattern of tile drainage through that area. If I go poke a bunch of holes in mine that’s above you or below you, either one, if I’m below you I’m going to disrupt all that flow, your going to get the water. It’s going to stay. If you’re below me and it’s not soaking in and going out the drain lines, it’s going to run across the top. If you’re downhill from me, you’re going to get my surface water. Those are issues that are extraordinarily difficult to predict what the outcome is. What happens if this project messes up a lot of that and you are downhill from it? You’re going to have a serious problem that you may or may not be able to do anything with.”

“Ranger (Power) said they will get it all figured out and it will not affect the drainage,” said Stout. “I don’t know how a company from New York can say it is not going to affect the drainage. There are lots of tiles out there in these fields that have been in there for years and years and years. To think it’s not going to affect the drainage is not realistic.”

The Board of Zoning Appeals meeting starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday inside Breck Auditorium at Shelbyville High School.

“(Ranger Power) has tried to push this in without anybody fighting it,” said Edwards. “I don’t think they thought there would be this kind of a battle. But when you are talking about people’s livelihood ... my argument was, I bought this house, planned to sell it and retire. This is my nest egg. This is everything I’ve got and if I lose it, I lose everything.

“It makes me feel like these people that have worked their entire lives and had a pension and then lost their pension. And a lot of other people out here feel the same way.”

Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals

When: Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Where: Breck Auditorium at Shelbyville High School

Who: The BZA consists of Doug Warnecke, Rachael Ackley, Kevin Carson (president), Jim Douglas and Dave Klene.

At Stake: Ranger Power needs at least three members to grant its special variance request to build a 1,000-plus acre solar farm in northeastern Shelby County. 

Thoughts: Three “Letters to the Editor” appear on A4, all discussing the proposed solar farm facility.