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Tough decision lies ahead for BZA

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Driving along county roads in northern Shelby County, it is not unusual to see the green “support” signs, as seen here, and the yellow “oppose” signs, which sits less than 30 yards up and acrossthe road, for Ranger Power’s proposal to build a large solar farm facility in the area.
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The sight of thousands of solar panels could take over the landscape of northeastern Shelby County if Ranger Power’s variance requestto build a solar facility gets approved at tonight’s Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals meeting.

I have been honest with both sides of the proposed solar farm issue. I have no dog in the fight. I’ve heard and reported from families on both sides and even Ranger Power. 

My question for the Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals is have you considered all the ramifications of having a large solar farm take over local farm land? 

That will be determined tonight when the BZA rules for or against Ranger Power’s proposal.

The money is good for Shelby County and particularly the Shelby Eastern Schools system, which would get a $600,000 check from Ranger Power once the facility opens.

There is no immediate danger from installing so many solar panels near residential areas, but a 30- to 40-year deal has to be cause for apprehension – not to mention the mere thought of a tornado ripping through the facility, which is both an overreactionary reach, I agree, but one to ponder.

Can the county allow land owners to stop producing traditional crops, corn and soybeans, for a new crop like solar rays? Essentially, no. It is their property and their right, to an extent, to do as they see fit. But Ranger Power’s plan to take over more than 1,000 acres affects more than the few land owners that will both help create green energy and also benefit financially.

What happens in three to four decades when the solar farm is considered unprofitable? No one can say for sure. 

Will Ranger Power, or whatever company considers itself owner at that time, fully decommission the facility in a safe and effective manner? 

Will the farm land be viable for a return to traditional crops as Ranger Power says is part of the plan?

A yes to the proposal is putting a lot of faith in Ranger Power to be a good corporate citizen. The company’s front man, Pete Endres, has talked with as many people as he can – on both sides of the fence. And he has sat in TSN’s conference room and explained the proposal. 

Most everyone agrees that solar energy needs to be developed. But developing it in our own backyard is the key talking point.

Emotions are meant to be left out of the voting process. Ranger Power must meet specific guidelines to get a special variance request. That puts added pressure on the board to make a “fair” decision.

Ranger Power has its land deals in place. And it has a restructured proposal to present to the Board of Zoning Appeals that addresses the concerns raised at the November meeting where its initial variance request was denied 3-2. The company believes its first presentation met all the requirements set forth by county officials when solar interest started peaking in early 2018. 

Four men and one woman will ultimately decide the fate of the second proposal. But the board has changed since November’s meeting which was held at the Strand Theatre in downtown Shelbyville. Ann Sipes, a “No” vote on the first proposal, is no longer on the board. 

Sipes’ appointed term was up, according to board vice president Doug Warnecke in a phone interview Friday. Dave Klene was appointed by the Shelby County Council to fill the seat.

Warnecke and Rachael Ackley voted “Yes” at the November meeting. Board president Kevin Carson and Jim Douglas voted “No.”

“The process and the way they’ve went about it, to me, all goes back to them knowing how much money they are going to make,” said Phil Stout, a vocal opponent of the plan. “They know how many millions they are going to make. They are doing it at the expense of people and land and it’s wrong.”

Shelby County will tout it, though. The City of Shelbyville will surely use it as a marketing tool for future business recruitment.

Big doesn’t necessarily mean better and this proposed facility is big. It will eat up over 1,000 acres of Shelby County farmland. Does the economic impact of a solar farm facility outweigh the lost production of the farm land? 

Farming is tough. Shelby County knows that all too welll. The market for crops rises and falls and by leasing property to an energy company, there is a guaranteed financial windfall in place. 

“I don’t blame the farmers out here because they have an opportunity to make probably a little bit more money than they are making farming,” said Ralf Edwards, one of the opponents of the proposal. His homestead would be completely surrounded by solar panels. “And they don’t have to do the work. If Ranger (Power) came out and decided to buy everybody’s land at appraised value right now or say you can stay here and we will put a solar farm around you, that would be a whole different ball game. If they gave me what my property is valued at right now, I would sell it to them tomorrow.”

There is cause to look at the need to develop alternative energy sources and move the country away from fossil fuels. And Shelby County could take a huge leap forward in the development of solar energy.

“The Planning Commission made this an ordinance ... not even a year ago. (Ranger Power) has met and exceeded everything in the ordinance,” said Charlene Shingleton, whose family is leasing a tract of its land to Ranger Power. “They opened the door and said we want solar. And now they want to close the door because of a few (people). They have to remember why they made the ordinance.”

While the solar issue is new to Shelby County. It is not unique. The Badger Hollow Solar Farm is a proposed 2,200 acre, 300-megawatt project to be developed on Wisconsin farm land. The arguments for and against are similar – farmers finding a way to stay profitable while neighbors lament losing their countryside view.

And what are the hazards of thousands, potentially millions, of solar panels being embedded into the ground near residential areas?

“I don’t think a solar panel is hazardous to your health,” said Jennifer Stout, who lives in the area of the proposed facility and would have family living adjacent to it. “But (that many) can’t be checked everyday. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.”

This battle had raged on for months now. Signs in support of the project have been damaged. And long time friends in a small community are polarized against one another.

Ultimately, the voice of the five board members could alter the landscape of northern Shelby County for decades to come.

“That’s what we’re there for,” said Warnecke. “I will say since the last meeting, everybody on both sides have been professional, courteous and respectful of other people’s views.”

Rex Kuhn is another area farmer openly opposed to the project. He realizes the Board of Zoning Appeals is in a difficult spot.

“It’s a tough thing for them,” said Kuhn. “They are charged with that job to do. Their job is to interpret the criteria. They made the decision and they will make it again shortly. If they don’t agree with the applicant twice, if we are not going to abide by what the BZA said, what is the point in being there?”

Either way, we all will have to live with the decision.

Burden of Proof

The Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals will hear a presentation from Ranger Power tonight at its meeting, to be held at Breck Auditorium at Shelbyville High School at 7 p.m., to create a large solar farm facility in northeastern Shelby County.

Ranger Power needs a special variance to place solar panels on county farm land which it will lease from local land owners.

The 5-member board must conclude that Ranger Power’s proposal supports the following Findings of Fact:

n It must be consistent with the purpose of the zoning district and the Shelby County Comprehensive Plan

n It must not be injurious to the public health, safety, morals and general welfare of the community

n It must be in harmony with all adjacent land uses

n It must not alter the character of the district

n It must not substantially impact property value in an adverse manner

Source: Shelby County Planning Commission