County passes wind, solar zoning ordinance

New standards for wind and solar energy conversion systems are now on the books in Johnson County.

The commissioners unanimously approved the ordinance at their Monday meeting, but acknowledged the ordinance isn’t yet perfect.

The county officials took the ordinance through the editing process with lightning-speed as far as government goes, finishing in under a month. The Johnson County Plan Commission considered the ordinance during their regular meeting in May and held a special meeting earlier this month, before forwarding it to the Board of Commissioners with a favorable recommendation.

County officials expedited the process so the ordinance could be in place prior to July 1, a date that could be important if state legislators make another attempt at a renewable energy bill next year. House Bill 1381, the Indiana legislature’s first attempt at statewide standards for commercial renewable energy developments passed the House, but died for lack of support in the Senate.

The local zoning updates are guidelines the Johnson County Board of Zoning Appeals will use to make decisions about any future renewable energy projects proposed in the county.

Wind energy conversion projects of any size and commercial-size solar projects must be approved by the BZA as a special exception, per the ordinance. Large commercial renewable energy projects are permitted in areas zoned for agriculture and industrial.

Small solar projects for personal power generation don’t need BZA approval but do require a building permit if the panels are being installed on the roof of a home, garage or barn, said Michelle Hansard, the county’s planning director.

Small wind turbines are permitted in all zoning areas except high-density residential classifications R-3, R-4 and R-5. Micro wind turbines and personal-use solar panels are permitted in all zoning classifications.

The 12-page ordinance includes standards designed to promote public safety and shield non-participating landowners. The most notable changes were made to setbacks and a new requirement that developers have a decommissioning plan in the event a project is abandoned.

For commercial wind projects, turbines should be at least twice the turbine’s height from all property lines and at least 1,000 feet from all buildings not belonging to the property owner, per the ordinance. Turbines must also be 1 1/2 times the turbine’s height from utility lines.

For ground- or pole-mounted commercial solar projects, the development is subject to structure and ground coverage standards applicable to that zoning district. Ground-mounted solar panels are exempt from lot-coverage standards if there is vegetation groundcover, rather than an impervious surface such as concrete or asphalt, per the ordinance.

Solar panels installed on top of a building are included in the total height of a building and cannot exceed the height maximum for the zoning district, while ground mounted panels may not be more than 25 feet tall at full tilt, per the ordinance.

Further, ground-mounted solar panels must be at least 150 feet from any non-participating landowner’s property line. That increases to 200 feet if the project is adjacent to property that is zoned residential or to property zoned agricultural if a home is within 500 feet of the property line, the ordinance says.

All panels must also be at least 100 feet from the edge of any public right of way and 150 feet from a participating landowner’s home, per the ordinance.

If multiple landowners are participating in either a wind or solar projects, landowners may waive the property line setbacks if both agree, per the ordinance.

A decommissioning plan requirement was not present in the county’s old renewable energy ordinance. Under the new ordinance, the plan would have to be approved by the commissioners, with a bond or other proof of responsibility required to back up the cost of decommissioning the project.

A project would be considered discontinued after six months idle and would be subject to decommissioning if the project sits idle for one year. The ordinance states the developer would be responsible for removing turbines and solar panels, as well as all underground infrastructure buried within six feet of the surface.

Commissioner Ron West emphasized that negotiating a decommissioning plan is the responsibility of the participating landowner, though the final agreement will be ratified by the commissioners.

Updates to the decommissioning portion of the ordinance are possible, along with other small changes that were discussed during the second plan commission meeting on the ordinance, said West, who represents the commissioners on the plan commission.

In order to have something passed before July 1, the plan commission and the commissioners passed an ordinance that was better than they had before, but had room for improvement, West said.

In the meantime, should any project be proposed before the language is updated, Commissioner Kevin Walls asked Hansard to emphasize to landowners that provisions for removal are up to them to negotiate.