ALBION — If you lived in the country, how close would be too close if your neighbor decided to put in a commercial grade solar operation?
The answer might affect more people than one might otherwise think. And sooner, too.
According to Noble County Planning Department officials, a Charlotte, North Carolina, company is in the preliminary stages of planning a 2,000-3,000 acre operation in southern Orange and northern Jefferson townships in Noble County.
“They’re contacting land owners to get leases,” said Noble County Plan Commission president George Bennett.
The project proposed by Geenex would generate between 300-400 megawatts of power. For size comparison, the solar field off S.R. 3 near LaOtto generates 1 megawatt and sits on 6 acres.
Kendallville’s proposed 1.55 megawatt field will sit on the former McCray Refrigerator property, which is similarly sized.
Currently, Noble County has no rules for commercial grade solar operations in its Unified Development Ordinance. It does allow for a High Impact zoning designation, which would allow for the construction of an electric generation plant.
Noble County Plan Director Teresa Tackett first brought up the topic with the Plan Commission in October of 2020. She attended a program regarding solar zoning in December.
Then in January, word started getting around concerning Geenex’s attempts to acquire lease rights in Noble County.
Also around that time, the Indiana legislature took up a bill which would have taken away local control regarding zoning for solar farms. The bill eventually died in the state senate, but it had Noble County officials — and much of the state — scrambling to meet a June 30 deadline for having their own rules which would be grandfathered in.
“The House bill forced our hand,” Tackett said. “We now have a little bit of breathing room.”
The county would still like to get something on the books. That’s why the Noble County Plan Commission met in a joint session with the Noble County Commissioners and Noble County Council on May 19 at the Central Noble Schools campus to take up the issue.
The current proposed zoning ordinance is available on the Plan Commission’s website and on its Facebook page. The commission is still seeking thoughts on potential changes.
“I’d rather the local citizens have their input,” Bennett said.
The issue will be discussed again at the Plan Commission’s 7 p.m. meeting June 16 at the Noble County Office Complex-South.
Bennett said it is impossible to tell if the plan commission will be ready to pass a final draft by the end of that meeting or not. If it were to make a final proposal, the Noble County Commissioners would still need to pass it as an ordinance for it to take affect.
It is much the same process a company would have to follow if it wants to install a solar field. It would still need to go to the Noble County Plan Commission, which would then make a recommendation to the commissioners for final approval.
The current proposal requires a 200-foot setback from any dwelling, and a minimum setback of 50 feet from any property line. The proposal allows for solar panels to be up to 15-feet tall and requires some type of vegetative screening as a visual buffer from a residence.
Basically, the land currently zoned agricultural would still be zoned as such, it would just have a solar zoning overlay on top of that agricultural zoning, requiring the process and rules to be followed in such a solar field installation.
Tackett said that such a vegetative screen would take time to grow and adjoining residences will likely “see those solar panels for a few years.” Fencing is also required around the panels.
Bennett and Tackett said public input is critical to the process.
“What should those rules be?” Bennett said.
“We want all of the citizens of Noble County to be aware,” Tackett said.
The proposed zoning ordinance does not address home-based solar panels meant to power a home, or even a small solar field to power a business, as long as less than 40 kilowatts is produced.
As with any zoning rules, the hoped-for effect is to allow people to do with the properties as they wish, “as long as it doesn’t interfere with their neighbors and what they want to do with their property,” Bennett said.