Jay County Commissioners suggested an amendment to a proposed wind farm ordinance update.

Jay County Plan Commission rejected it.

On a 3-2 vote Thursday, plan commission disapproved amendments that would have reduced some of the new setbacks for wind farms and solar farms.

By state statute, the issue now heads back to county commissioners. As the county’s elected legislative body, commissioners have 45 days to vote again to approve the ordinance with their suggested amendments. If they do not act within 45 days, the ordinance will go into effect as originally presented by plan commission. (Commissioners can also then ask plan commission to take another look at the ordinance for possible changes.)

Thursday’s decision by plan commission hinged entirely on the commissioners’ suggestion that the setback for wind turbines from residential dwellings of non-participating landowners be reduced to 1,500 feet from 1,640 feet. Plan commission had originally approved the 1,500-foot setback but modified it following a public hearing in September. The current setback is 1,000 feet.

The move to 1,640 feet came after Sheila Birsfield, who is part of a local group that opposed Bitter Ridge Wind Farm, noted that recommendations from wind turbine producer Vestas call for employees to be 1,640 feet away under emergency conditions. (An example of an “emergency condition” is a turbine’s rotor being on fire.) She and other residents asked plan commission to increase the proposed setback to 1,640 feet based on that recommendation.

Chad Aker, who represents Jay County Commissioners on the plan commission, explained Thursday that Vestas has since noted that 1,640 feet is for emergencies and was never intended as a setback.

“This is a temporary clearance and not a permanent setback requirement,” Aker read from a letter from the company.

Plan commission members Tom Laux and Steve Ford expressed misgivings.

Laux had already voted against the 1,640-foot setback in September, saying he thought it should be extended even further.

Ford on Thursday expressed a desire to protect more densely populated areas.

“When you start increasing those setbacks, you keep them out of more populated areas,” said Ford, adding that the 1,640-foot setback was part of a process of compromise.

On the other hand, plan commission member Matt Minnich expressed support for moving forward with commissioners’ suggested amendments, noting that the property line setback — 1.5 times the total height of the turbine — is more restrictive than that for residential dwellings. (Turbines that have been or are being erected in Jay County are about 500 feet tall.)

Plan commission president Scott Hilfiker also said he had no issue with the commissioners suggested amendment.

In addition to the amendment regarding wind turbine setbacks, commissioners also had suggested amendments to solar farm setbacks from property lines to 25 feet from the original 150 and for access driveways to property lines to 50 feet from the original 300.

Those suggestions received no comment from plan commission.

When the commissioners’ amendments as a whole came to a vote, Michelle Penrod, Laux and Ford were against while Minnich and Aker were in favor. By rule, Hilfiker only votes in case of a tie. Plan commission members Ted Champ, Brad Daniels and Ron Laux were absent.

Following the vote, Ford expressed his feeling that the entire process could have been handled better by developers. He suggested that they should have a presence in the county and make plans known to the community prior to taking steps such as acquiring leases or easements.

Penrod later said her biggest concern is safety.

The process of reviewing the wind farm ordinance has been ongoing since summer 2018 when commissioners, on the suggestion of plan commission, placed a three-year moratorium on new wind farms in the county after vocal opposition from some residents to Scout Clean Energy’s Bitter Ridge Wind Farm, which is scheduled to go into operation next year. A study committee spent months reviewing the wind farm ordinance and creating a new ordinance to regulate solar farms before presenting them to plan commission.