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Solar farm gets green light

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Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals member Doug Warnecke looks over some of the presentation paperwork submitted by Ranger Power for a proposed solar farm in northeastern Shelby County.
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Attorney Lee McNeely, standing, delivers Ranger Power’s presentation for a special use variance to the Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals Tuesday in Breck Auditorium at Shelbyville High School.
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Pete Endres, left, development manager for Ranger Power, answers a question during Tuesday’s Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals meeting at Shelbyville High School.

By JEFF BROWN - jbrown@shelbynews.com

At 11:08 p.m. Tuesday, the landscape of northeastern Shelby County changed.

By a vote of 3-2, the Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals approved a special variance request from Ranger Power to build a 199-megawatt solar facility on nearly 1,800 acres of farmland southeast of Morristown.

“Tonight’s decision is a big decision that allows us to move forward with the project. It’s not the final decision that we need and there is lots more work to do – and we look forward to doing that,” said Pete Endres, development manager for Ranger Power. “Tonight, we won the opportunity to continue to work on it.”

The favorable decision came nearly four months after the board voted 3-2 against Ranger Power’s first special variance request. 

The 4-plus-hour meeting Tuesday at Breck Auditorium at Shelbyville High School kicked off with an hour-long presentation of Ranger Power’s proposed project by local attorney Lee McNeely, representing the New York-based company. The $175 million project needed to satisfy five requirements set forth by the Shelby County Council in a Unified Development Ordinance regarding solar power facilities.

McNeely carefully explained how the project is consistent with the Shelby County Comprehensive Plan, how it will not be injurious to public health and safety, how it will work in harmony with adjacent land uses, how it will not alter the character of the district and how it will not impact property values of the area.

Once the presentation was complete, lawyers representing several opponents of the project countered Ranger Power’s information leaving the 5-member board to determine if a burden of proof was met.

The meeting was then open to public commentary where 19 men and women of all ages stepped to the microphone to voice their concerns or express their interest in the project. 

Finally, the board asked questions directly of Endres and Aaron Svedlow of D.E. Shaw Group, a global investment and technology firm that is working with Speedway Solar, the official company name associated with this project. 

At 11:08 p.m., board president Kevin Carson called for a vote. Carson and Jim Douglas both voted “No” to the special request variance needed to put solar panels on farm land, as they did in November, while Rachael Ackley and Doug Warnecke voted “Yes,” again as they did in November. Dave Klene, who recently replaced Ann Sipes on the board, also voted “Yes.” Sipes voted “No” in the first meeting.

“I’m sticking with the idea of the comprehensive plan,” said Carson. “The comprehensive plan of Shelby County says ... and many, many people put time into that and came to the community meetings ... and the overwhelming majority said we like the rural, agricultural integrity of Shelby County. And so, that’s where a lot of my basis goes toward in the Findings of Facts. I believe it went against the comprehensive plan.”

Carson explained that agriculture was more harmonious that solar panels to the region. And he couldn’t really decide whether property values would be affected either way by the development. 

The project is slated to take up 1,791 acres in Union and Hanover townships in northeastern Shelby County. Over 700,000 solar panels will cover 1,015 acres with fencing and landscaping to protect the panels and limit their viewability, which concerns many neighbors of the project.

“Hopefully what we demonstrated tonight is we’re going be a partner in this community for a long time,” said Endres. “Land owners who have chosen to participate in this project, that’s their decision and we respect that. And the decision tonight by the board respects their rights. But there are also other agreements we made tonight and will continue to make to protect Shelby County. We firmly believe this is a good project for the county.”

Ranger Power also received a variance request Tuesday from the board to push back construction commencement to a 4-year window. Endres expects construction to start in 2022 with the facility up and running in 2023 to start servicing a 35-year deal to supply the energy created to Wabash Valley Power, an Indianapolis-based transmission cooperative.

“There is a lot more developmental work to do in terms of surveys and design and engineering on the project. We still have some local processes that we need to go through too,” said Endres. “Next week we will be in front of the County Council for our tax abatement proposal and then down the road be back meeting with the technical advisory committee and the drainage board.”

The arguments for and against the project amongst land owners in the area has been passionate. That has come as no surprise to Endres, who respects the opinions of those not in favor of this project.

“I understand that some people just simply don’t want it but hopefully we’ve presented enough evidence to demonstrate that this is not a risk to them,” he said. “It’s a good thing for the people that have chosen to participate in it and the community more broadly, and we look forward to being a good partner going forward.”