Shelby County people dominated the public comment portion of the Indiana Senate Utilities Committee, which dealt only with HB 1381 during its three-hour meeting Thursday morning.
The committee introduced a new amendment to the bill that significantly changed it, and they passed it 9-2.
Kyle Barlow, Zonda Stead and Justin Parker from Stop Industrial Solar Plants in Shelby County travelled to Indy again and actually got to speak this time.
In addition to the anti-solar group, County Council President Tony Titus also spoke against the bill.
Indiana Farm Bureau’s Katrina Hall said her company has a neutral stance on it now that it has a new amendment.
The bill – authored by Representative Edward Soliday – primarily deals with renewable energy systems like wind and solar. It establishes default standards for both kinds of systems, such as setback requirements, height restrictions and ground cover.
The bill significantly changed during the meeting, but when it arrived, these anti-solar protestors as well as many local governments were most concerned about a provision that disallows smaller governing bodies to set more restrictions on these systems than are stated in the bill.
When it arrived at the meeting, HB 1381 allowed a potential solar/wind project petitioner to file a complaint with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) if the local government denies their project, to which the IURC could overturn the decision and force the counties to accept the companies.
Parker summed it up best: “This burden of whether or not they get approved should not rely with the state. … I think the siting decisions need to be made at the county level where those serving as locally appointed or elected representatives have the ability to correspond with their constituents, the one who will be affected the most.”
Prior to the bill’s introduction into the 2021 legislative session, more than 30 counties have already said “no” to renewable energy, including nearby Henry County, who overturned several of their county council and commissioner members in the last couple elections specifically because the incumbents were seen as “pro-wind.”
HB 1381 passed through the state House of Representatives on Feb. 17, the day after the Shelby County Commissioners joined nearly 60 other counties by signing a resolution opposing HB 1381 during its weekly meeting. Despite the commissioners’ differing opinions on renewable energy, all three of them oppose the bill because of its interference with home rule.
“Even though that’s the topic, it isn’t about wind and solar,” Commissioner Chris Ross said in that February meeting. “That letter should be specifically to the fact of taking away local control. Even if it’s addressed that way right now, it would have ripple effects on a whole bunch of other things, other than wind and solar.”
The Senate Utilities Committee clearly heard all the opposition, because it passed what’s referred to as Amendment Three on Thursday morning. Drafted by Senator Mark Messmer, the amendment does away with the IURC appeal – instead, appeals can be made to the local circuit courts.
The amendment also offers guidelines and incentives for counties to adopt a Renewable Energy District, or a physical location associated solar or wind project, according to the amended bill.
“It would allow a county that already has a more restrictive ordinance to adopt and work with the renewable companies to make sure the construction of a renewable energy district is functional,” Messmer said.
But this is not required, so the bill offers an incentive to persuade counties to adopt this district – a $3,000 per megawatt up-front payment to the county by the incoming wind company. The committee discussed that this money could be used at the discretion of the local government, but also suggested it would go toward neighbors of projects.
At the time of the meeting, this only applied to wind companies, not solar, but the committee discussed extending this incentive to counties accepting solar companies as well.
This amendment also grandfathers in local ordinances currently in place, regardless of whether or not they are more restrictive.
The amendment was apparently made public early before the meeting, so nobody really had any proper time to review it. Because of this, when Titus spoke on behalf of the Shelby County Council, he opposed it.
“I originally put down that I’m opposed to the bill,” he said. “Unfortunately, not getting to see the amendments, just talking out in the hall to folks, it’s still hard for me to get behind the bill.”
His biggest opposition to the previous version of the bill pertained to the local control portion.
“I think we’ve done a really good job listening to constituents, writing up ordinances, working with the Plan Commission and so forth to try to move forward to do what’s best for the county overall,” he said. “We’ve tried to come to some sort of common ground moving forward.”
“I think [the amendment] is moving in the right direction,” he said.
Even with this amendment, anti-solar leaders Barlow and Stead reiterated the themes of renewable energy systems damaging prime farm ground and decreasing property values.
“Solar companies want to site these projects on vast amounts of prime farm ground, classified A1 and A2,” Barlow said. “Almost five percent of my county’s tillable acres in the last year and a half alone, are either approved or wanted for solar … an enormous amount of prime farm ground is going to be lost to these.”
Stead agreed with Barlow and expressed concern about renewable energy bringing property values down. Then she said she thought the amended bill wasn’t adding anything new to the current process of establishing renewable energy plants in local areas.
“A couple things I want to address about the amendment, home rule, the whole design of it was to push the ability to make decisions down to the local level,” she said. “While that’s what you guys did, there’s also a component of it that’s already there. Doing this bill is double duty.”
Senator Jean Leising (who serves on this committee) said the same thing. She asked what the differences are between this bill and the current standards.
“If we do nothing, tell me the difference between your new amended version and what is in current practice now?” she asked. “What reason would a county want to participate if it’s all nay?”
Messmer explained that it would provide a set of guidelines for counties with no ordinances to help them establish an ordinance. It also provides that monetary incentive.
“There’s still a tool in place where they can proceed with a project within an renewable energy district, and then have a payment process for the neighbors of those projects that doesn’t occur today,” Messmer said.
Leising expressed concern that the developer would offset this initial cost in the lease contracts with the land owners.
It was for these reasons she voted against the bill.