MUNCIE, Ind. — Ryan Richards began weeping before he could get any of words out while addressing Delaware County commissioners Monday. His teen son stood next to him.
"You are taking their opportunity to farm away," Ryan Richards said.
The farmer told a packed crowd at the meeting that generations of farming in his family will end, that homes in Washington Township will be surrounded by solar panels and the farmers who are leasing their land to Invenergy, the energy company building the Meadow Forge project, are only seeing dollar signs.
Commissioners voted Monday to place a two-month moratorium on the approval of any plans for construction of any solar farms in Delaware County while changes to the solar farm ordinance are considered.
Proposed changes, according to Commissioner Shannon Henry, would include increasing the setback of a solar field from homes from 50 to 100 feet, and making sure a corridor exists out of wooded areas for large animals such as deer to run free.
Opponents of the proposed Gaston-area solar farm made their voices heard Monday.
Kyle Mealy, superintendent of Wes-Del Community School, fears a shortage of tax dollars for his schools if the already approved solar farm, expected to consume about 3,000 acres from Gaston north to the Grant County line, becomes a reality.
"We will have to look for money from people outside the abatement area," Mealy told the commissioners, who approved economic development plans for the project in late October.
Tom Schoder of Invenergy told county council in the fall of 2021 that plans call for construction to start in the middle of 2023 with the solar farm operational by the middle of 2024.
Invenergy is expected to create 150 jobs during construction, with two local employees needed after construction is completed. After tax abatement on an estimated $155 million in equipment, the project is expected to deliver $32 million to the county over its life.
Money flowing from Invenergy to the county includes an economic development arrangement with commissioners that could deliver as much as $2 million to county coffers in addition to the operation's property tax payments.
Provisions of that agreement state the company will pay Delaware County up to $200,000 annually for 10 years. That amount can decrease if tax assessments rise to more than $8,000 per acre for the land after the solar panels are in operation on the acreage. The amount can also fluctuate with the production capacity of the solar development.
But public schools in Indiana, including Wes-Del, primarily rely on property taxes for income.
Mealy, who told commissioners he was speaking on behalf of the Wes-Del School Board, says he expects the operating budget at Wes-Del to "take a hit" from the solar panel development and its abatement.
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Many residents who appeared at the last two commissioner meetings have complained they knew nothing about plans for the solar farm, which would take up thousands of acres in Washington Township, prior to tax abatement approval in October.
At this point, as long as developers meet requirements of Delaware County's solar farm ordinance, there would not necessarily be another public hearing concerning the project, said Marta Moody, executive director of the Delaware-Muncie Metropolitan Plan Commission.
But Invenergy would have to submit site plans, including plans for building, drainage and safety, that would be reviewed by the county.
Moody said there was no specific zoning action or variance at stake in the solar farm development, so there was no notification requirement for nearby property owners. Invenergy has been making lease agreements with farmers in Washington Township for the development of the solar farm.
Jason Kuchmay, an attorney from Fort Wayne representing solar farm opponents, told commissioners that the proposed farm would change the face of the Delaware County and it would force property values down for real estate next to and near the solar panels.
"People did not move out to Delaware County to look at an industrial solar farm," he said.
In other action Monday, the commissioners reorganized and chose Commissioner Sherry Riggin to serve as president, replacing Commissioner James King in the role.
David Penticuff is the local government reporter at the Star Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: Planned 3,000-acre solar farm being fought by schools and neighbors