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Official request submitted to build solar farm in northwest Indiana
By Stan Maddux
Indiana Correspondent

LAPORTE, Ind. – A battle appears brewing now between Indiana farmers and nearby residents over who has more rights as property owners.
A solar energy company is officially seeking permission to draw energy from the sun on 2,600 acres of farmland on the east side of LaPorte County.
Opponents of the proposed facility packed the LaPorte County Commissioners meeting on May 1 hoping for a moratorium until there was a better understanding about industrial solar farms.
They were disappointed to learn it’s too late to place a moratorium on the current proposal since the request to build and operate the proposed solar farm had already been submitted for consideration by the LaPorte County Board of Zoning Appeals the previous day.
“That’s my interpretation of the law,” said Scott Pejic, the attorney for the commissioners.
RWE Clean Energy, LLC is seeking a special exception to the current agricultural zoning of the land in the area of 600 East and 200 North in Kankakee and Wills townships.
Renewable Development Manager Emily McDuff, who works out of the company’s office in Chicago, said the amount of electricity produced by the solar panels would at least equal what’s needed to power every home in LaPorte County.
McDuff said the power would help replace the electricity to be lost when coal fired generating plants in Indiana, such as the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. (NIPSCO) facility in Michigan City, shutdown in the next couple of years.
She also said about a dozen farmland owners would no longer have to worry about selling their properties for future financial security with the supplemental income they’ll be paid for use of their ground as a solar farm under a 35-year lease.
McDuff said the solar farm would also mean about $100 million in property tax revenue for local governments over the lifetime of the operation.
After 35 years, McDuff said the solar farm would be decommissioned and the property restored to farmland. She also said barriers consisting of plants and other natural growth would be created around each of the sites.
“Our application exceeds LaPorte County and the state requirements in areas such as vegetative screening and setbacks from residential neighbors,” she said.
Heather Oake, of 3306 N. 50 East, said the county government solar farm ordinance should be amended to prohibit such operations anywhere near residential areas.
The concerns of residents include lower property values, chemicals possibly leaking from the solar panels over time, glare from the sun, and noise.
Oake said she has empathy for the farmland owners not wanting to be forced into possibly selling their ground one day for retirement income, but the views of everyone in the area should be factored into the decision.
“I think we just need to be looking at both sides and really what the majority of the people want. Maybe we should do polling to find out,” she said.
Landowners like Cindy Kusper, of 5253 E. 150 North, defended what they felt was a right to do what they wish with their properties.
She and her husband would be compensated handsomely from the solar farm resting on about one-third of their 950 acres of farmland currently leased to other farmers.
“We have a vision of making that land go back to where it is now. But, in the meantime, it helps us financially and secures us for the future,” she said.
Rhonda Haverstock, of 2591 N 600 East, said her husband, Jack, is now retired from farming and their ground is rented to other farmers to grow crops. Haverstock said revenue from a solar farm lease would prevent any possibility of her having to sell land that’s been in her family for generations.
She also said her rights to do what she wishes with her property should not be infringed upon.
“We’ve got children, grandchildren that we’d like to see benefit from this also.  I’m asking everyone to consider our property rights,” she said.
In response, Oake said she believes there are limits to the rights of someone owning property.
“I do have empathy for the farmers that want to lease their land. On the flip side, we have zoning laws. If we didn’t any zoning laws then sure you can do whatever you want with your property, but we do have zoning laws,” she said.
Critics also pointed out the hundreds of construction jobs created would be gone once the operation is built with just a handful workers remaining to operate the facility.
Susan Thomas, director of legislation and policy for the group “Just Transition Northwest Indiana,” said a new industry is being created from the continued push toward cleaner energy.
Thomas said workers are being trained now to repair and maintain solar panels on site in return for a livable wage. “These are union jobs. It’s very exciting,” she said.
The BZA is expected to begin considering the proposal at its next meeting on May 21.
Pejic said the county commissioners will have no role in the decision, which is in the hands of the BZA as a matter of standard long term procedure governing requests for special exceptions to current zoning.

5/7/2024