The county officially has its first-ever solar ordinance.

After months of discussion, members of the Knox County Commissioners on Tuesday opted not to make any additional changes to the legislation and approve it as is.

“Light the county up,” quipped commissioner Trent Hinkle to which the whole room whooped in excitement.

The development of a new solar ordinance — one that will now regulate the construction of solar farms here — has been in the works for months.

Kent Utt, former CEO of the Knox County Development Corp. who now serves as a consultant for Tenaska, a Nebraska-based solar company looking to build here, has been on the sidelines for all of it, gently nudging local officials along the way.

So he was thrilled to finally see the commissioners approve the legislation on second and third readings Tuesday.

“Thank you,” he told the commissioners. “Thank you for taking this on. I know it’s been delayed through all of this COVID stuff; we really started dialogue about this a long time ago.

“But in the end, we’re going to have one heck of good project, one that will benefit the county in so many ways, both financial and environmental.”

Utt went on to call it an “evolutionary deal,” one that will likely make Knox County a leader in Indiana in terms of solar development as Tenaska is looking to build a solar farm valued at $110 million in southern Knox County.

Utt said to look for an official announcement from Tenaska, now that the ordinance is finally compete, as early as today.

The commissioners approved the solar ordinance on first reading in July then it went to members of the Area Plan Commission — the enforcing agency — for review.

They gave it a favorable recommendation — following a change in the buffer zone, or the area between a solar farm and the next-nearest structure, from 100 feet to 200 feet — but other concerns were raised at that meeting from solar developers themselves.

Dan Farrell, a project development manager with Miami-based Origis Energy, for instance, wanted to lessen the financial burden on solar companies by delaying the establishment of a decommissioning security bond — or getting rid of it altogether.

And Utt asked the county to consider allowing for a preliminary permit, of sorts, so solar companies aren’t out hundreds of thousands of dollars in engineering costs only to see the county decline an application later.

But after meeting in special session last week, the commissioners decided no further changes were necessary — that the concerns expressed by the solar energy companies can be addressed simply by interpreting the ordinance one way or another.

“We believe (the existing ordinance) adequate because it really came down to interpretation as opposed to needing to change the ordinance itself,” said commission president Kellie Streeter.

Colt Michaels, executive director of the APC, following that meeting last week, drafted a memorandum to inquiring solar companies more plainly spelling out the ordinances’ procedures.

That document, at least for Tenaska, Utt said, cleared the air. Michaels’ memo, he said, was “spot on” and offered “good clarity” on the issues at hand.

The commissioners also last week expressed concern that the ordinance didn’t include language that would protect the county from environmental hazards, specifically metal left in the soil.

Barnes and Thornburg, the Indianapolis law firm helping to draft the legislation, advised the commissioners that isn’t something typically included in other Hoosier solar ordinances.

Streeter, too, said upon further investigation, those are regulations already handled by organizations like the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

“So we can’t supersede any of their environmental rules,” she said. “DNR and IDEM should handle everything in regards to environmental concerns.

“Us including that language might make us feel better, but we aren’t the regulatory agency to enforce it.”

So, in the end, the commissioners moved to approve the ordinance just as it is, meaning that with the APC’s favorable recommendation already in hand, it can take effect immediately.

Streeter also reported that a committee of county council members has also been actively working with Tenaska behind the scenes in terms of some kind of tax abatement deal.

That deal, too, is likely to include an Economic Development Agreement, one that could allow for federal dollars set aside for communities who invest in solar technology to pass through to county officials.

Those details have yet to be ironed out, but Streeter said discussions are “forging ahead” and “going well.”

“More to report on that soon,” she said.
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