Decatur County Board of Zoning Appeals Meeting- RWE Solar Project Discussion

The Decatur County Board of Zoning Appeals met on March 6, 2024, at 7:00 pm. The first item on the agenda was the election of the 2024 officers, however, the board stated that they were going to do that at a later meeting. The board approved the February 7, 2024 meeting minutes.

The first petition was 2023-7 by Roy Saylor is returning to make changes to the original petition which was as follows: requesting the following variances to develop a twenty-one (21) lot subdivision west of 207 W Kentucky Ave, Westport in Sand Creek Township.

1. A “Variance” from provisions of the Decatur County Subdivision Control Ordinance #305 (R) to not require sidewalks

2. A “Variance” from provisions of the Decatur County Subdivision Control Ordinance #305 (W) to not require curb & gutters along Kentucky Ave

Jeanne Saylor was in attendance to represent her and her husband Roy. She stated that she and her husband have decided that they are not going to move forward with the original plans to build a subdivision. Instead, they are going to have six home lots. Which will be 90ftx120ft. The BZA board was concerned that Jeanne and/or Roy have not approached the Town Council to discuss the sidewalks to see if they are required. It was mentioned that the Town Council has a new board and that she should go through them. Bryan Gatewood, a Westport Town Council member came to the podium to state that they have not seen any plans presented. He motioned to the presentation that shows the land and how the Saylor’s wish to divide it into 6 lots. He said that they have not even been presented with this. He asked that the board not vote on the petition and asked her to go back to the Westport Town Council for a presentation and discussion. After members spoke that was the decision that the board made. Jeanne Saylor stated that she was confused as she didn’t have to go to them previously and stated that when she interacted with the council previously they accused Jeanne and Roy that since she and Roy do not live in Westport they don’t care about Westport. The board stated that she needed to speak to the Westport Town Council and then once they were satisfied they would then send the BZA a letter or communication stating this step has been taken care of.

The second Petition was 2024-3 by Elizabeth Owens and she is requesting a “Special Exception” to add living quarters to an existing barn. The request falls under Decatur County Ordinance Section 925. The property is currently owned by the petitioner and is located at 1758 S CO RD 180 E, Greensburg, in Washington Township. Elizabeth was present and stated that she was adding living quarters to the back of her barn. There will also be a one-car garage that will be attached to this addition. She has spoken to her neighbors and they have no concerns. She has already applied for the septic to be installed and is working to get all other needs completed. The board approved her petition.

The third petition was 2024-2 by Franciso Galeano of RWE Clean Energy / Greensburg Solar LLC will present an initial presentation on the proposed solar project with a question and answer session to follow.

Mary Soliday, Attorney for RWE stood to begin the discussion. She spoke about the history of RWE. The company is 125 years old and in 2006 became active in North America. She then spoke about how the company began in Wind Development and has transformed into working with solar projects. RWE is a unique company as they are the Developer, Owner, and Operator. The company proudly searches and works to accomplish dual use of the land by having space for the solar panels, but also continuing to allow farming of the land around those panels.

Francisco came to the podium and walked the room through his presentation. He spoke about the noise level that is reported from these solar panels is kept within the low range. He stated that he has had a hydrological study completed and that he and RWE do not want to interrupt the water flow in the area and want to decrease erosion. Mr. Galeano spoke about being good stewards of the land and the importance of remembering that they are leasing this land from the farmers. In no case will they be purchasing any land. He stated that this project is less than 1% of the farmland in Decatur County. He said they will also as part of their application for a build permit be conducting a Drain Tile Survey so that they can minimize any potential damage to any Drain Tiles.

Francisco stated that the panels will be on a galvanized steel pipe and driven into the ground 45 feet. They do not use concrete of any kind. Then the solar panels themselves tilt as they follow the direction of the sun. This allows for the maximum exposure of the sun.

Francisco brought a solar panel with him and showed what one looks like while explaining the glass on the panel is tempered glass like automobile glass. It is made to spider and crack and not burst. He pointed out that the panels themselves are of plastic-type material and with the way the panels are made there is not any chemical or other negative component that could leak if broken or a malfunction occurs.

Francisco then spoke about the decommissioning bond that they have agreed to set with the county and the farm owners. This will set aside the funding that it would take to decommission the site and revert it to its prior condition should something occur such as RWE going bankrupt, deserting the project mid-build, or does not follow the contract. This is put in place as a protection for the farm owners and the county. This bond will be with the county and will either be a regular bond or a letter of credit. The projected cost of decommissioning the site is determined by a third-party agent and re-evaluated every five years. Francisco stressed that he and RWE intend to ensure that the land is protected and preserved for the future.

Francisco stated that with this project the county residents have asked what will this project contribute to Decatur County. He stated that it would bring tax revenue into the county. The current estimate is 40 million dollars over the life of the project. Annually this works out to approximately 1 million dollars per year. Francisco stated that the land leases would allow the use of the land for the solar project. Then after the lease ends RWE would be required to return the land to the same shape as it was before the project. The petition that they are going to ask the BZA to vote on is allowing a Special Use Exemption. This allows RWE to operate, but the county can revoke that special use in the future. The property will remain A1 and will continue to pay property taxes as an A1 zoning classification.

It was after the presentation that Francisco opened for a question and answer. Some of the concerns stated by attendees included noise levels, fire response and ability to spread to other properties, the age of the company, zoning classification questions, future road concerns from construction, and ongoing use of the solar farm.

Francisco spoke about the noise levels and explained that it would be quiet and stated that he would bring an expert who could speak to the exact measurements that could occur. He stated that he and his team, including a fire safety expert, have met with 2 local fire chiefs to discuss the fires. The fire safety expert was in the room. His name was Tony. He stated that he would be offering full training for the fire departments on how to deal with fires that could happen. He states that there is misinformation available to the public and that he has been working with solar panel equipment and has experienced that most of the time the fires burn themselves out. He said that the system that they use would be alerted if a fire happened. Tony added that fires at solar panels are very rare and most of the time are extinguished before the Fire Department reaches the scene.

Another concern that came from the audience was that the panels are made in Vietnam. Francisco stated that this is where they are manufactured and asked if anyone in the room was concerned with that. He urged them to go home after the meeting and take a look around their homes and see what items are manufactured in China, Vietnam, or outside of the country.

Francisco stated that they are an Independent Power Provider (IPP), which means that they sell to Industrial and Commercial Customers. They do not sell to the end consumer, so he reminded the crowd of this. Also, he stated that it is their goal to own and maintain all projects that they have developed.

Nick Wenning, Farm Bureau Board President spoke to the BZA and spoke about a recent survey that was given out to its members. At this time they have approximately 1000 members. One of the questions was- Are you in favor of farmland being leased for industrial projects? The response was 85.8% of its members responded No. The second question asked what is the number one concern that could come in and take the farmland. Nick said that the number one response was Solar.

Two citizens stood and stated that they are neighbors and are located near the proposed site and they have not been contacted or had any information left at their home. This was in response to a statement made by Francisco earlier in the presentation saying that he had driven around to all neighbors and had spoken with them or left material. Francisco answered that he had driven around but it is possible that he missed someone and that this was not intentional.

A concerned citizen came to the podium and asked about drainage problems inquiring about the percentage of watershed that goes down Gas Creek with the project. RWE was unable to provide an answer to this question. Also, a discussion was had about impervious panels between the citizen, the BZA board, and an engineer on the project. The BZA board reminded the public that RWE will have to see the drainage board and present its plans to them before everything has the opportunity to be approved.

Another concerned citizen came before the board to ask about the integrity of RWE and of the 11 projects that they have developed, how many are still being managed by RWE? Francisco stated that they currently are maintaining all 11 projects. This citizen then asked with the 22,000- 25,000 homes that will be powered by this project, how many will be in Decatur County. Francisco stated that they are a wholesaler and do not sell directly to individual homes. He states that they inject the grid with the power created and this helps support and adds stability to the grid.

The next question that was asked by this citizen is if RWE has other projects in the works that they want to lease additional farmland in Decatur County. Francisco stated at this time this is the only project in the works.

Concern about lower property values for the surrounding properties and farmland was discussed. RWE Real Estate Appraiser Representative stated that with his experience and evaluations Solar Projects do not reduce the value of surrounding properties. He stated that he plans to submit an approximate 50-page report to the BZA showing actual sales and information to support his statement.

Another question that was asked, of the 300 construction jobs, was how many would be local jobs? Also of the 4 ongoing full-time jobs, how many would be local jobs? Francisco stated that it is his goal to hire locally and that they would have job fairs in the community.

Jim McIntyre, a concerned citizen came to the BZA and recited the Decatur County Comprehensive Plan. He told the board “Here it is in black and white, just follow your guidelines that were created when the plan was created.” He told the BZA that they have an opportunity to shut this down or make a large mistake and pass it. Also, he told the board that everyone is watching how they vote.

For more information on the Decatur County Comprehensive Plan and Decatur County Zoning Ordinance Article 20- Solar Energy Facilities. Please click on the following links.

Jeff Whitaker, a citizen, stood and spoke about how the board needs to remember that property owners have rights. He said that if they start taking those rights away then that can be a slippery slope. He believes this should be a conversation and decision between the property owners and RWE.

Another citizen asked if RWE is applying for or plans to seek tax abatements for the project. Francisco stood and stated that they are not to that part of the planning phase and that in other situations they have had tax abatements, but at this time it is not part of the discussion.

Andrew Stewart stood and spoke in support of the project and RWE. He stated that he is one of the farm owners who have leased the property. He stated that solar is something that can be profitable during droughts and off years.

We heard from another citizen who questioned RWE ‘s values, company beginnings, and integrity of RWE globally and spoke about conflicting information that is found on the RWE’s websites. He states that the American website has information that conflicts with the global company website. He urged the public to go to their websites and find information.

The meeting continually maintained an attendance of approximately 300 in person and 50-75 via a livestream on YouTube.

RWE stated that they would be returning next month with additional answers to any questions that they were not able to answer. They also stated that they will be bringing experts to help with answering questions as well.

The next meeting will be held in the EMA meeting room unless alternative options are made before that date to accommodate additional citizens.

The board voted to adjourn the meeting. The meeting was said to have a hard stop at 10 pm. However, the meeting ended at 10:10 pm.

After the meeting, I reached out to RWE for further comment on the BZA meeting. The following image is the response that I received.

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