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SOUTH BEND — Solar farms will now have to meet additional requirements and obtain a special use permit, meaning they must first get approval from the St. Joseph County Council. The council approved the measure on Tuesday by a vote of 9-0.

But a resolution calling for a one-year moratorium on new solar projects failed by 4 votes to 5.

And yet another bill calling for additional restrictions passed 9-0.

This was done during a four-hour meeting in which 49 members of the public expressed their differing opinions. The meeting was sparked by plans by Virginia-based company Hexagon Energy to build solar farms on 2,300 to 2,500 acres of farmland in the North Liberty area – a project that worried several residents when they learned about it just a few weeks ago.

June 18, 2024: Long hearing on stricter regulations for solar farms in St. Joe County: Differing opinions

Residents spoke about the rights of landowners to lease their farmland to Hexagon, the benefits of solar energy, claims that solar energy could harm soil and wildlife, and that some need more research into the impacts.

Four companies also submitted applications to install solar projects in St. Joseph County on Monday evening, according to Abby Wiles, director of the county’s Area Plan Commission. She did not provide any details about the applicants, noting that staff still need to review the applications to determine if they are truly complete.

Before Tuesday’s change in the regulations, large solar projects only had to apply for a building permit and a review of the building plans, which were checked by the responsible district authorities for compliance with the regulations.

Wiles also said that her department’s attorney said under state law, Tuesday’s ordinance changes would not apply to projects that had already gone into effect earlier. In other words, they are only bound by the ordinance and rules at the time they were enacted.

This map shows the more than 2,000 acres that Hexagon Energy is leasing for solar farms near North Liberty beginning in June 2024.This map shows the more than 2,000 acres that Hexagon Energy is leasing for solar farms near North Liberty beginning in June 2024.

This map shows the more than 2,000 acres that Hexagon Energy is leasing for solar farms near North Liberty beginning in June 2024.

Tuesday’s changes further tighten regulations that the county council loosened in 2020, following the state’s example, to encourage such large-scale solar installations on farmland.

But the call for additional changes came in a later, non-binding resolution proposed by Republican Dan Schaetzle and Democrats Rafael Morton, Diana Hess, Mark Catanzarite and Bryan Tanner. It simply requires that the Area Plan Commission develop the following restrictions. If the APC does so, they would be presented to the council for approval:

∎ The requirement that solar panels be located at least 150 meters from the home of a “non-participating” neighbor, up from 76 meters in the original proposal. The panels would also have to be located at least 45 meters from the neighbor’s property line.

∎ The panels would also have to be at least 150 feet from any property zoned or used for agriculture. Originally, that distance was set at just 50 feet, but Council Member Amy Drake – a supporter of the moratorium and stricter restrictions – moved to change it to 150 feet, an adjustment that passed by a 5-4 vote.

∎ The panels would also have to be at least 150 metres away from public or private parks or nature reserves.

∎ A fully greened buffer area would be required along the property boundaries of residential properties, parks and nature reserves.

∎ The solar project manager would be responsible for repairing any damage the solar plant might cause to waterways, ditches and drainage pipes. Solar farms would also be subject to the supervision of the county drainage department.

South Bend Tribune reporter Joseph Dits can be reached at 574-235-6158 or [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the South Bend Tribune: St. Joseph County passes solar farm restrictions, but no moratorium