After a little more than one hour of discussion at March 10's public hearing, the Franklin County Area Plan Commission decided to make amendments to the proposed ordinance to regulate alternative energy systems (AES) in the Franklin County zoning code.

APC member Ed Derickson explained the board is deciding on a process that any proposed solar project would need to complete, and at this point, no specific project has been proposed for development in the county. Derickson noted as a conditional use, the APC and Franklin County Board of Zoning Appeals have a lot of leeway to impose additional restrictions on any individual project.

County board attorney Grant Reeves, who worked on the team to develop the ordinance draft, explained to the board the current text sets the basic framework for agricultural zones as A-1, prime agriculture, and adds a new zone for agriculture/AES. Once a parcel is rezoned from agriculture to AES, it is permitted to be used for basic agricultural purposes and allows the owner to apply for a conditional use to allow solar.

“This does not allow solar in A-1 unless you rezone. The same as you could have gone in and asked to rezone to an I-1 or I-2, or anything, and there's no way we could block someone from asking for a rezone, ever,” clarified Reeves.

APC member Rob Seig mirrored some of the concerns mentioned earlier in the meeting, the potential for drainage ditch and tile issues discussed by area farmers. Seig explained the county manages several drainage tiles and ditches running on easements and suggested solar panels are unlikely to be permitted within those drainage corridors. However, the privately owned laterals that connect to the county managed system would be prone to damage.

Seig discussed different methods to help locate and identify drainage tiles. The first step is to talk to landowners; many may know where the tiles are located, or able to narrow down the location. From there, the use of ground-penetrating radar can pinpoint unknown tiles.

Drainage was another concern Seig touched on. The installation of thousands of acres of hard surface, whether roads or solar panels themselves, may impact runoff downstream of the panels. The proposed text does not include any requirements for the management of runoff, nor do other sections of the county's zoning code.

“I'm not opposed for this process, but I think it needs to be looked at very hard on what it's going to do to the citizens of Franklin County,” said Seig.

APC president Ruthie Mannix replied the proposed text does require a technical review by industry experts, but the text could be expanded.
Seig also brought up concerns over the decommissioning process and the required bond. The amount of money required to cleanup a disused solar site today is likely to be drastically different than the cost 20 or 30 years from now.
APC member Connie Rosenberger voiced concern for other issues that had been raised during the discussion, including setback, grounds maintenance, pollution and insurance. She then made a motion to remove A-1 from consideration for AES installations, requiring anyone with A-1 that would like to apply for an AES permit to go through the process outlined in the code.
Mannix replied the proposed text would require A-1 parcels to apply for a rezone. Rosenberger restated her motion to remove A-1 from consideration. APC member Christine Rains asked how removing A-1 would affect the code. Mannix noted AES is already not permitted in A-1; it would require a rezone. Rosenberger clarified the motion is to retain A-1 zones in place, not to be replaced with A-AES. Mannix asked Rosenberger to restate her motion.

“I move to remove A-1, exclude A-1, from identification as an A-AES zone,” stated Rosenberger.

APC attorney Tammy Davis clarified there is currently nothing in the A-AES zone, and nothing will be classified as A-AES until Franklin County Commissioners grant a rezone.

“I just feel like the amendment is opening the door, and I think we need to stand firm as a community and as a county and say that we do value our A-1 agricultural ground for its agricultural use.” stated Rosenberger.

Mannix noted the county's zoning code treats A-2 and recreational land the same as A-1; if the county were to restrict A-1 from AES, it would also apply to those other zones. Mannix warned the board the county cannot restrict a legal use to the extent it is essentially banned from the county. She brought the board back to Rosenberger's motion, which died from lack of a second.
Rosenberger asked if the board was interested in placing a limit on the amount of land that can be used for AES projects. Mannix replied she was interested in enacting some sort of a limit, such as a certain percentage of the county's land, but felt the board was unlikely to come to a decision at that meeting. Rosenberger made other suggestions; Mannix agreed with the sentiment but emphasized the need to get the ordinance into place. Seig brought the discussion to the code's height limitation of solar equipment of 20 feet; he asked Geenex Solar representative Paul Cummings how high his company's equipment is typically installed. Cummings replied most modern systems are installed at a height of approximately 15 feet, though older systems were likely a little taller. Seig proposed to made changes to the presented text.

Mannix clarified changing the text at this point will require the amendment return to commissioners. Seig explained his concern over damage to drainage tiles and suggested the need to require ground-penetrating radar scan as part of a proposed site's development plan. He also suggested the drainage requirements, across the zoning code, need significant review. Seig made a motion to require the use of ground-penetrating radar to find unknown utilities and drainage tiles; Braun seconded the motion and the board voted in favor.

At this point, the drafted ordinance was destined to return to commissioners for a final approval. The APC continued to discuss additional changes to
the proposed text. Rains suggested the board discuss the insurance requirements landowner and insurance agent Traci Robinson brought up earlier in the meeting. Mannix read the document, which requires a general liability policy of $2 million minimum per occurrence with an aggregate of $5 million. Rains asked Robinson what she would suggest for minimum insurance coverage.

Robinson suggested a minimum of $10 million per occurrence of coverage but suggested a liability study for each project to determine a more appropriate level, by three independent companies. She also recommended a hold harmless clause that would eliminate the liability of any adjoining property owners in case damage occurred to the solar site. Rains made a motion reflecting Robinson's recommendations, which was seconded and approved by the board.

Mannix made a motion requiring natural, vegetative pollinators be planted under solar panel installations. Rains seconded the motion and the board voted to approve.

Davis noted the board has made changes to the text presented to them by commissioners. The APC will need to send the document back to commissioners, who will review the latest round of changes and decide whether or not to approve the amendment. Braun made a motion to send the document back with the changes made. The board voted to approve Braun's motion. The commissioners will hold a public hearing to review the changes within 45 days.