By JOHN WALKER - firstname.lastname@example.org
On Nov. 13, the Shelby County Board of Zoning Appeals is due to take up the matter of a proposed 1,200-acre solar farm.
Extra chairs may be in order, because the proposal drew a standing room only crowd to the Shelby County Council’s special meeting on Monday evening.
More than 100 people attended the forum at the Court House Annex, 25 W. Polk St., with the crowd spilling out into the hallway.
Tony Titus, president of the County Council and a farmer, acknowledged the concerns of those gathered, but noted the council has a limited role in the decision-making process.
“The BZA will have the final say on this,” he said.
Council members will only decide on whether the project receives a tax abatement that the developer, Ranger Power, has requested, explained Titus.
However, members of the audience at the council’s meeting had other concerns.
Jeff Baskin, who owns parcels of farmland south of the proposed site of the solar farm, worried about his property values declining and about the long-term impact of the solar farm.
“I do not under any circumstances want to be responsible for somebody just skipping town and leaving all these solar panels and all this crap in the ground,” he told the County Council.
Dan Gabbard, who lives near the site, had a different view, arguing in favor of property rights. He said the property owners who would lease their land to Ranger Power for the solar farm have a right to do that with their land.
He suggested that neighboring property owners who objected could be offered a buyout.
Nearly two dozen audience members spoke during the two-and-a-half hour council meeting, touching on a variety of topics, including talk of a windfall in property tax revenues for Shelby Eastern Schools.
County Councilman Bryan Fischer noted that talk was inaccurate.
“I’ve had a lot of people call me and say, ‘So is Shelby Eastern Schools going to get $17 million in taxes?’” he said. His answer was “No.”
Ranger Power has suggested giving Shelby Eastern, which includes high schools and elementary schools in the communities of Morristown and Waldron, $250,000 as part of a $1.5 million offering to the county that a company document called an “Economic Development Agreement (EDA) payment” when the solar farm reaches commercial operation.
The County Council would have the discretion of how to use the remaining $1.25 million, according to a written document from Ranger Power handed out at the meeting.
Fischer said that $250,000 payment would be it; there would be no other windfall.
That led to a discussion with Fischer and Shelby County Deputy Auditor Amy Glackman about how property taxes work. They explained that the state sets a maximum levy for the county each year that limits how much money the county can raise in property tax revenue.
An increase in the county’s overall property value due to the solar farm’s equipment – assessed as personal property – would simply result in a lower rate for other property owners, Glackman said.
“It’s just going to lower your tax rate,” she said.
At a meeting of the County Council on Oct. 16, an attorney for Ranger Power said that the equipment investment would be at least $87.5 million.
CJ Walsh, director of development for Ranger Power, in response to an audience member’s question at the council’s special meeting Monday, said the investment could be as much as $175 to $200 million.
“I think those figures are a minimum and maximum,” he said, referring to the $87.5 versus the numbers he cited.
The company hopes to have the facility online in two years, Walsh said, and he encouraged those concerned to reach out to the company directly.
Some at the County Council meeting said they believed members of the Board of Zoning Appeals would be present and asked if they were.
Attorney Mark McNeely, representing the BZA, told the crowd he advised the members not to come because it would be an “ex parte communication” outside their formal meeting.
Ranger Power has asked the BZA to grant a special exception to allow agricultural land to be used for a solar farm. The properties would remain zoned for farming, said Sam Booth, director of the Shelby County Plan Commission.
“They have to submit a decommissioning plan,” he said for removal of the equipment.
The BZA’s meeting to hear the request is scheduled to take place in the Court House Annex at 7 p.m. on Nov. 13.
Ranger Power is due to come before the County Council regarding its request for a tax abatement on its personal property investment at 6 p.m. on Nov. 20 at the same location.