Henry County could have its third solar farm two years from now.

The Henry County Planning Commission approved a request Tuesday night from Lightsource bp to move forward with the Bellflower Solar Project south of U.S. Hwy 40 in Spiceland and Wayne Townships.

All nine planning commission members were present for Tuesday’s vote. Member Kenon Gray was the standout vote on the commission approved use (CAU) request, voting “No” to all three questions put before the commission.

Tuesday’s meeting clocked in at about two-and-a-half hours, during which the planners asked direct questions of the Lightsource bp representatives and heard from members of the public.

Kevin Smith, CEO of the Americas for Lightsource bp, joined Senior Development Manager Vince Green at the Henry County courthouse Tuesday to give the local planners information about the energy company and, specifically, the Bellflower Solar Project.

Smith said Lightsource bp plans to use an owner/operator model with the solar array.

“Our model is to maintain long-term ownership and operation of the facilities throughout the life of the projects,” Smith said. “These projects can have upwards of 35 or 40 year lives.”

Smith said solar technology has advanced over the last few decades to become “cost competitive.”

Green told the planning commission the Bellflower project is based off the proposed solar ordinance Henry County has been working on since last year. The draft ordinance has been available on the Henry County website for the past month.

Planning commission member Gray asked Smith and Green why they applied for a CAU knowing the county didn’t yet have an ordinance in place.

“We’ve been active in the area for a year or more,” Smith said.

Green told the planning commission in September about the company’s intent to move forward with the project. He said they identified the site, did studies, designed the project, communicated with the neighbors and then brought the plan to the county.

“We take the approach that we have to design the project, we have to do the studies because before we engage the folks around the area and tell them what we’re doing, we need to know what we’re doing,” Green said. “We were slowed down by COVID or else we’d have been here a lot sooner.”

Community comments

Grant Dishman, a farmer from southern Henry County, said it would be ridiculous for outside companies to wait for Henry County lawmakers to come up with rules before starting a project.

Dishman reminded the planners that he had to go through the CAU process a few years back himself before he could build a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). At the time, Henry County had no CAFO ordinance. Dishman recalled that it took about a decade for such an ordinance to get on the books.

He also noted that two Henry County Commissioners are already planning to change the wind turbine ordinance that went into effect in 2018.

Dishman spoke to the planning commission as one of the four local families leasing land to Lightsource bp for the Bellflower Solar Project.

Dishman addressed some concerns other people had raised about the possible impact installing solar panels could have on property tax revenue for the county.

According to Dishman’s calculations, the tax on his land would be about 17 times higher with a solar panel on it than if it was just regular farm ground.

He also addressed the idea of solar energy companies getting government subsidies, a topic that had come up several times Tuesday and often over the past several months.

Dishman pointed out many farmers also receive government subsidies from taxpayers.

“Your money is creating the survivability of the American farmer,” he said.

Dale Delay, who lives near the Bellflower Solar site, thought the solar company should offer neighbors more money for potential losses to their property values.

Smith said Bellflower has been working with the county commissioners to come up with a solution to address property value concerns. He said they will offer neighbors either a one-time, “no strings attached” cash payment or a property value guarantee based off a proposal from Henry County Commissioner Ed Tarantino.

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