Commissioners table Cold Spring Solar rezone request

Monday, February 5, 2024
Courtesy photo

The final decision on rezoning 1,200 acres of agricultural land in Russell Township to make way for a solar farm will wait at least two more months.

On Monday morning, Arevon Energy, developers of the proposed Cold Spring Solar Farm, requested that the matter be tabled by the Putnam County Commissioners until their Monday, April 1 meeting.

The commissioners voted 3-0 to table.

The matter had come before the Putnam County Area Plan Commission on Thursday evening, with that board reaching a 6-3 decision to deny the rezone. However, APC decisions are only advisory in nature, leaving the final decision up to the commissioners.

On Monday, Arevon Director of Development Tommy Hudzik noted that a number of questions were raised on Thursday, and the company would like to address these more directly and provide the commissioners with more information.

During Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner Rick Woodall, who is also on the APC, expressed his disappointment at what he saw as a lack of preparation on Arevon’s part.

“I thought you guys should’ve been more prepared for this,” Woodall said. “Because you knew a lot of these questions would be asked.”

With the matter tabled, the developers are looking to not make the same mistakes again.

Such questions involved things like environmental impact as well as the percentage of Russell Township that will be affected. Presenters have often noted that the land in question is less than one percent of the county’s ag land overall, but have not addressed what it means at the township level.

One matter of some confusion is what the next step is. Following Building and Planning Director Lisa Zeiner’s departure from the commissioners meeting, it was noted that the request was going back before the APC for reconsideration.

Zeiner confirmed to the Banner Graphic that this is not the case. The decision remains in the hands of the commissioners, and has simply been tabled for two months.

The matter is the first real test of the county’s new unified development ordinance, which took effect on Jan. 1.

At the conclusion of Thursday’s two-hour special APC meeting, county councilman and APC member Jay Alcorn made the motion to deny the request from A1 (agricultural preservation) to natural resources, which would allow for a solar farm to be placed on the land. The motion was seconded by Clint Cooper.

In a roll call vote, Alcorn, Cooper, Ken Heeke, Jenna Nees, Tony Riggen and Kevin Scobee all voted to deny. Woodall, County Surveyor Greg Williams and Randy Bee all voted against the motion to deny.

APC member Chris Mann was not in attendance, but had already expressed his intent to abstain from any vote due to a conflict of interest.

Prior to making the motion, Alcorn shared his reasoning. He noted that he was one of two county councilmen who voted in late 2022 against granting tax abatement to the Cold Spring project, should it come to fruition.

“My reason being that solar has a place,” Alcorn said, “but I don’t think offering a tax abatement in competition with agriculture was appropriate.”

Alcorn also offered that he believes there are better ways to take the long view and place solar panels in locations that are not productive farm ground.

“I don’t have anything against your company or solar in general, but I will not support this rezone,” Alcorn said.

With a number of audience members already having expressed skepticism — some bordering on conspiracy theories — about the process, Scobee gave a reminder prior to the vote.

“This is only a recommendation,” he said.

One conspiracy expressed by at least one speaker on Thursday was that the county had changed the rules for such matters in order to allow this project to pass.

Under the original county zoning ordinance, such matters had to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals, not for rezone but for a special exception. The BZA had already denied a special exception back in September 2023, before the new UDO took effect in January.

However, the county’s base document was drafted in 1992 and did not even address solar or wind energy, as they were nowhere on the radar at that time. Even the addition of these as a special exception did not occur until a 2019 revision to the old ordinance.

County Attorney Jim Ensley did what he could to quash any grumblings about the change in law.

“We have been working on the zoning rules for eight years. The timing of it had nothing to do with this project,” Ensley said. “I don’t want there to be implications of non-transparency.”

Zeiner took it a step further, noting that all county residents had ample opportunities to be part of the process of drafting a new comprehensive plan and UDO over a three-plus year period.

“There were several, several public meetings regarding the UDO,” Zeiner said.

Prior to the decision, the comments were similar to those that have been debated before the council, commissioners and BZA at prior meetings.

Arevon representatives outlined the project, which is a 200-megawatt solar farm, which they estimated will be enough to power 30,000 homes.

The land itself will not be owned by the power company, but will be leased for at least 30 years, renewable up to 50 years, with banks of solar panels placed on the land.

Project Manager Paul Cozens noted the financial impact while also saying that effects on sound, heat, telecommunications, aviation and wildlife would be minimal.

Public comment came in on both sides of the debate, with supporters noting landowners’ rights, economic impact and the importance of clean energy.

However, those in opposition mainly centered their arguments on preserving agricultural heritage as well as the farmland itself.

In the end, the will of the commission was to deny.

However, the final responsibility lies with commissioners Woodall, Tom Helmer and David Berry, who represents the district in question.

How that vote might play out is a matter of much speculation, as various county boards have gone different ways on matters related to the solar matter.

On the one hand, back in December 2022, the Putnam County Council approved a 10-year abatement on the solar equipment to be installed. Additionally, the Putnam County Commissioners also reached agreement with Arevon on an estimated $6 million economic development agreement, a decommissioning agreement and a road use agreement.

On the other, Arevon requests have met with negative votes from both the BZA and APC.

One matter regarding the APC that was likely unique to Thursday’s meeting was the makeup of the board. While it is temporarily a 10-member board, it will soon be growing. Previously the “County Plan Commission,” it contained all members noted above except for Riggen, who is a member of the Russellville Town Council.

When Russellville opted to take part in the UDO, it also chose to turn all its BZA and plan commission matters over to the county. In doing so, the town was given one appointment to the newly-rechristened APC, with fellow town council members choosing Riggen.

Having also opted into the UDO, Cloverdale and Roachdale will have appointments to the APC, though these have not yet been made.

Bainbridge, on the other hand, also opted into the UDO but plans to retain its own BZA and plan commission.

Of the other two municipalities in the county, Fillmore continues without zoning, while Greencastle has its own, independent zoning regulations.

Once the other two towns have made their appointments to the APC, the county will make one more appointment simply to bring the number of board members to 13 – an odd number, which is important to avoid voting ties.

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  • On the presumption that the developers were aware of today's meeting, not being prepared should have resulted in a denial.

    -- Posted by Bob Fensterheim on Mon, Feb 5, 2024, at 3:59 PM
  • *

    Anyone remember how the Council voted on the POET abatement?

    -- Posted by The Crusty Curmudgeon on Mon, Feb 5, 2024, at 5:01 PM
  • We agree with bob if they were not prepared it should have been deniable and over with.

    -- Posted by kingswood on Tue, Feb 6, 2024, at 7:51 AM
  • I stated at the meeting that this looks to me like an end run around the APC by the solar people. To make a presentation directly to the Commissioners (who have already negotiated a 5.7 million dollar deal with the solar company) after they received a recommendation from the APC to deny a re-zone seems inappropriate. The APC is intentionally made up of a diverse group including representatives from the commissioners, council, BZA, extension etc. Mr. Woodall stated Lisa Zeiner directly told him that they would go back to the APC first.

    I am so disappointed with our county officials.

    -- Posted by dalemcgaughey on Tue, Feb 6, 2024, at 11:16 AM
  • I agree Dale. 2 appointed committees met and voted no. Are the commissioners bound and determined to keep at it dispite what representatives of the citizens after much discussion and research wish? To me it’s a no brainer? Something just doesn’t sit right with this

    -- Posted by Simplelife on Tue, Feb 6, 2024, at 12:47 PM
  • Insult to injury is subsidizing the project with the granting of tax abatement. Since everything else has gone back to Square One, so too should that flawed decision.

    -- Posted by Bob Fensterheim on Tue, Feb 6, 2024, at 6:09 PM
  • The time is past due when we should take unfounded conspiracy theories, half (or less) truths, and flat out lies out of political decisions and discourse. That’s the right way forward.

    -- Posted by Koios on Tue, Feb 6, 2024, at 6:52 PM
  • A conspiracy theory is typically when someone takes a tiny bit of factual information and creates an entire hypothetical story. With the solar farm, you have the commissioners negotiating to get a big pile of money they can use to fix their money headaches, a conveniant coincidence. Then you have the new zoning rules that have been worked on for eight years, suddenly being completed right after the solar farm is voted down, another coincidence. And the commissioners who obviously support the solar farm now get to decide, a very convenient coincidence! It's frankly insulting to anyone with sense to call it a conspiracy theory. It's not a theory! It's just a matter of whether you buy their story that it was all a coindence or not. I think Ensley's indignation is a little telling. He doth protest too much, in my opinion. There's no reporting that he even acknowledges the very reasonable suspicion of it all, considering what a big issue this is for the county.

    Probably the only great thing about having Trump for president is we got to witness four years of dishonesty by him and republicans everywhere, and also them being openly underhanded on a daily basis. We know that these things do happen.

    -- Posted by Raker on Tue, Feb 6, 2024, at 7:58 PM
  • Why would anyone be surprised at the behavior of the parties involved? This is all about money in the pockets of those who already have it, as most political processes are. They’re shameless and have no need to even try hiding their motivations anymore, as there are plenty of people who will support them anyway, to their own detriment.

    -- Posted by techphcy on Tue, Feb 6, 2024, at 7:59 PM
  • This is an economic and energy opportunity for this county. It’s that simple.

    -- Posted by Koios on Tue, Feb 6, 2024, at 9:50 PM
  • After speaking with Mitterand, I have come to agree with a perspective in one of the above posts.

    -- Posted by beg on Wed, Feb 7, 2024, at 9:02 AM
  • What's wrong with a good conspiracy theory? RAKER, for the longest time, has been one of my favorite conspiracy commentators! However, I'm not quite ready to hop aboard the fantasy wagon he's pulling just yet.

    I particularly enjoy his conspiracy theory of how the "evil" conservative Republicans are behind the ethanol fiasco. Well, he should have asked President Biden about his support of ethanol at the rally Biden held at the Menlo, Iowa ethanol plant, which, BTW, is only a few steps from the family farm where generations of democrats have been growing countless acres of "evil" corn.

    RAKER, we always enjoy your comments and theories!

    -- Posted by Prince of Stardust Hills on Wed, Feb 7, 2024, at 11:09 AM
  • Prince Everything I wrote about ethanol is fact. There are countless studies and reports that say ethanol really isn't that great, but I'll leave that to you to read up for yourself.

    -- Posted by Raker on Wed, Feb 7, 2024, at 1:52 PM
  • RAKER, I'm with you on the pros and cons of ethanol. I actually operate a machine that by regulation is not to be operated with any degree of ethanol mixture in the fuel. But when it comes to the conspiracy of ethanol being a conservative Republican invention, that is simply not true. 40 percent of America's corn product goes to ethanol production, and that includes a lot of corn grown by a lot of democrat/foreign owners/and corporate farms. In addition, unless he is lying, which is very likely, our very liberal president Biden is, in his OWN words, a supporter of ethanol, and while he might be a tottering old fool, he is anything but a conservative Republican.

    -- Posted by Prince of Stardust Hills on Wed, Feb 7, 2024, at 2:38 PM
  • Biden said Mitterand agrees that ethanol is bad

    -- Posted by beg on Wed, Feb 7, 2024, at 2:38 PM
  • If Biden or anybody supports making more and more ethanol going forward that's fine I don't really care. It's debatable whether ethanol is the answer, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. But there will never be enough farmland to fully replace oil or to fuel everyone having an e85 vehicle, so is the question, is all this farmland and corn being used up actually helping the environment, or is it a wash? The EPA says ethanol is 40% less polluting than gas because they factor in the Co2 being eaten up by the corn when it's growing, as though the land would just be a barren desert were it not for the corn. If you take that out of the equation it's pretty much a wash, if not worse. That's what they say. Maybe, I don't know. But there is definitely financial motivations behind the push for ethanol.

    -- Posted by Raker on Wed, Feb 7, 2024, at 8:49 PM
  • RAKER, farm economics can be a sore spot with me. In 1979, when I first went to the bank to see about a loan for a farm, I was more or less immediately guided out the same door I entered.

    Six years later, after Carter's grain embargo and farming fiasco, I was eagerly driven around the county to look at a number of farms by the bank's farm manager. I've had a high interest in farming economics ever since.

    Ethanol is an important issue but probably not for energy reasons but probably, as you mentioned, financial and, to a much lessor extent, political reasons.

    -- Posted by Prince of Stardust Hills on Wed, Feb 7, 2024, at 9:59 PM
  • Sheep!! Will the UPDATED INFORMATION presented by the applicant at the April 1, 2024 Commissioners meeting include information concerning the use of sheep for vegetation management?

    such as:

    -The proposed source and number of sheep to be rented/leased?

    -The quality of the vegetation made available for grazing?

    -Provisions being made available for watering?

    -Provisions being included for safe and secure unloading / loading of these sheep?

    -Predator protection?


    Can ONLY hope so.

    -- Posted by coldwaterheater on Thu, Feb 8, 2024, at 10:59 AM
  • Here I am, yet again, forced to agree with Raker all the way up until they said only Republicans are bad. Whoever has hijacked Raker’s account, I’d like to buy you a drink of your choice.

    Money from the pockets of taxpayers, to the pockets of those who already have money. That is exactly what this is about, not clean energy or the benefit of all.

    -- Posted by techphcy on Thu, Feb 8, 2024, at 12:38 PM
  • I wonder if Napoleon Bonaparte has a perspective.

    -- Posted by beg on Fri, Feb 9, 2024, at 11:28 AM
  • techphcy wrote, "Whoever has hijacked Raker’s account, I’d like to buy you a drink of your choice."

    That deserves a smile. I was beginning to wonder the same thing.

    -- Posted by Prince of Stardust Hills on Fri, Feb 9, 2024, at 6:58 PM
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