ALBION — Without giving it a thumbs up or a thumbs down, the Noble County Plan Commission Wednesday voted to send its commercial zoning overlay ordinance back to the Noble County Commissioners with changes recommended by the commissioners themselves.

The commissioners have roughly 60 days to act on the changes. According to Noble County Plan Director Teresa Tackett, the commissioners have tentatively set a date of Nov. 8 to take up the issue.

The zoning ordinance addresses any proposed commercial solar operation in Noble County.

The ordinance’s creation was spurred on by state efforts last year to set statewide zoning law concerning the issue. Noble County officials wanted to have its own ordinance on the books before that happens.

Geenex, a North Carolina-based company, has been contacting Noble County landowners and offering $900 per acre, escalating to an average of $1,200 per acre, to create a large solar field in north central Noble County.

Before such a project can be started, the county has to develop and pass guidelines for the development to follow.

If they do take up the zoning ordinance as amended Nov. 8, the commissioners can;

• approve the ordinance with the changes discussed Wednesday;

• reject the ordinance and send it back to the plan commission for further review; or

• do nothing. If the commissioners do not act, the draft of the solar ordinance approved in September will become law at the end of that 60-day period.

If the commissioners approve the amendments as submitted, the issue will go back to the plan commission for review.

“If we vote in favor, it will be adopted,” Noble County Plan Commission president George Bennett said.

The plan commission could reject the amendments, at which point the Noble County Commissioners would have the final say.

“The ball essentially is still going to be in the commissioners’ court,” Bennett said.

The plan commission had passed its version of an ordinance at its September meeting. On Oct. 12, the Noble County Commissioners voted to send the matter back to the planners, requesting some changes.

The issues discussed Oct. 12 involved tweaking the proposed ordinance, not an overhaul.

According to Tackett, the overlay district proposal does not alter original zoning designations.

“The base zoning will not change,” Tackett said. “The overlay use is the only additional use allowed.”

Two of the amendments to the original proposed ordinance were highlighted during Wednesday’s meeting: setbacks and the issuance of insurance bonds which would require the developer of any commercial solar field to provide for the cost of decommissioning the solar field.

In its original form, the plan commission’s overlay ordinance set setbacks of 50 feet from a non-participating property line and 300 feet from any point of the foundation of a residence.

Noble County Commissioner Gary Leatherman, working in conjunction with the other commissioners, recommended that portion of the ordinance to be changed to allow for 100 foot setbacks from a non-participating parcel’s property line and 350 feet from any point of the foundation of a residence for par. The change would only be for those non-participating parcels 3.0 acres or less.

Tackett displayed a graphic showing the impact the new setback would have, showing a 134-acre parcel would lose approximately 4.743 acres of solar field.

Landowner Mike Lemmon argued against the change.

“What are we going to do with it?” Lemmon said of the sliver of land cut out from the 134-acre parcel by the setback requirements. “We can fence it in and put livestock in. We have to maintain it? Who is going to pay for that?”

“That is a waste of land,” Noble County Plan Commission member Tom Griffiths said.

Leatherman said he understood Lemmon’s concerns, but that the commissioners had to be concerned with all property owner rights — big and small.

He said adding the 50 feet of setback would be a “gesture of good faith… (to small parcel owners) to give them a a little more of a cushion. It was a compromise we came up with.”

The value of the bond to assure the county that a developer would have funds to decommission a solar field in the event that ever becomes necessary was another issue.

The current proposal required any potential developer to submit a bond providing for the cost of decommissioning.

Acting on the advice of county attorney Dennis Graft, the commissioners amended the ordinance to require the developer to put up a bond set at 150% of the decommissioning costs.

Plan commission members questioned why this was necessary since another section of the ordinance required the bond to be adjusted — if necessary — every five years depending on the changes in decommissioning costs.

Leatherman said that was a change worthy of further discussion by the commissioners.

Provisions of the proposed solar zoning ordinance include:

• The parcel size must be a minimum of 5 acres;

• A complete development plan must be submitted within 90 days to the Noble County Development Plan Committee. The development plan must include, among other provisions, a fire safety plan, proof of liability insurance, storm water erosion control plans and road usage-repair agreements;

• No part of a solar panel or shall exceed 15 feet in height.

• A buffer of natural vegetation or evergreen plants must be installed and meet a minimum of 6-foot in height at the time of installation, located between the property line and the commercial solar field’s fence on the participating land owner’s property.

• A requirement to have a conservation stewardship plan for the establishment and maintenance of ground vegetation for the life of the commercial solar field operation.

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