Some St. Joseph County officials are irritated by a bill moving through the Indiana legislature that would take away local governments’ power to decide where, and under what standards, developers should be allowed to build wind and solar energy farms.
With one solar farm near completion in Granger, and the potential for similar development in areas such as the Indiana Enterprise Center, a proposed 2,900-acre-plus industrial complex near New Carlisle, the debate could have future implications for the county.
St. Joseph County Commissioners are set to vote Tuesday on a resolution against Indiana House Bill 1381, a move that would add the county to a chorus of local government leaders across the state who have voiced opposition to it.
The bill, authored by State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, would establish statewide rules for the placement and technical details of wind and solar developments, and prohibit local governments from requiring anything beyond the state standards.
Lawmakers and industry lobbyists who favor the bill say Indiana is losing out on the growing renewable energy market because of a patchwork of local ordinances that can make the state’s rules confusing or antagonistic to companies investing in wind and solar.
But critics argue the proposed law would force a “one-size-fits-all” approach and grab power away from the local elected officials who are in a better position to make zoning and permitting decisions that serve their communities’ interests.
“The bill not only takes away local control, but also treats every community, every property the same,” said Ryan Hoff, director of government relations for the Association of Indiana Counties. “This would essentially throw out the process of decision-making on whether wind and solar is compatible with other land uses, whether residential, industrial or what have you.”
The bill lays out technical requirements, such as the maximum height of a wind turbine or solar array, or the minimum distance from the nearest home or road. Local governments would be free to make rules that are more relaxed, but not more restrictive.
For example, Hoff said, local governments would not be allowed to restrict the development of wind or solar farms near parks, schools or tourism districts. There would be no way to reserve land for future housing developments, or to prevent a growing business from being landlocked in the middle of a wind or solar field, Hoff said.
Under the bill, if a local government were to deny a permit for a wind or solar project, the developer could appeal the decision and have it overturned by the unelected Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.
The St. Joseph County Council just last year passed a wind and solar ordinance that the county has billed as making it “one of the best places in the nation to develop solar.”
Still, the county’s ordinance includes provisions that would have to be scrapped because they go beyond the standards in the proposed state law. For example, the county ordinance requires pollinator-friendly vegetation around solar arrays, while the state merely encourages it, and imposes stricter height limits.
St. Joseph County Commissioners President Andy Kostielney, a Republican, said he thinks the bill is misguided, calling it an “overreach,” despite his support for renewable energy growth in the county.
“Conceptually, I don’t disagree with more statewide or universal standards,” he said, “but the ultimate decision-makers should be local communities.”
While Kostielney said St. Joseph County is unlikely to be a player in wind power, it has already seen the development of one major solar farm. That project, owned by Indiana Michigan Power, includes 57,000 solar panels on 210 acres between Bittersweet and Cleveland roads in Granger. I&M expects the farm to be up and running by late spring.
And county officials have floated the idea of solar fields as a possible use for the Indiana Enterprise Center, the industrial area being developed on farmland near New Carlisle.
“That’s one of the industries we think is very appropriate out there,” Kostielney said, “and, frankly, development we’d like to see.”
He said there are no specific projects in the works, but the county has fielded inquiries from developers “kicking the tires” on the idea of a solar farm in the New Carlisle area.
County Commissioner Derek Dieter said he was undecided Monday on whether to vote for the resolution opposing the state bill. Commissioner Deb Fleming did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.
County Council President Rafael Morton, a Democrat, said Monday he believed the bill was a bad idea, but he knew of no plans for the council to vote on a similar resolution in opposition.
The bill passed the Indiana House with bipartisan support last month, and is now pending in the state Senate, where it has yet to receive a hearing in committee.
Two senators representing parts of St. Joseph County, Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, and Sen. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, say they’re keeping an open mind on the legislation.
Rogers said Monday she was “leaning against” the bill because local officials in both St. Joseph and Elkhart County had voiced their opposition.
Niezgodski, meanwhile, said he tends to support the rights of local government but also supported the bill’s goals of renewable energy growth.
“The real question here is, if the state truly is going to begin looking at more renewable energies and clean air technology, what is going to be the give-and-take to get there?” Niezgodski said. “To some degree, in order to create good policy, the state is obviously going to have to have a significant say in it.”