County Government

County council denies tax break for solar farm project

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Plans for a solar farm in southern Montgomery County dimmed a bit Tuesday after the Montgomery County Council failed to support the company’s tax abatement request.

Cold Springs Solar LLC had asked the county to declare certain parcels of land in Brown Township as an Economic Revitalization Area. Such a designation in Indiana is technically the first step in the process to become eligible for tax abatement.

The company is proposing to build a solar farm on 1,600 acres of land in Brown Township, and has already secured lease agreements from interested property owners.

Jarrod Pitts, project development director for Tenaska, the solar project’s parent company, fielded heavy criticism from several council members who expressed opposition to large-scale solar projects.

County officials voiced concerns over the potential loss of farm ground and associated jobs, how such projects negatively impact the ecosystem and debated the merits of renewable energy.

Pitts told the council the proposed project is in a rural and remote area of the county, and the property owners most affected by it are farmers who have chosen to lease their ground. He added there would be jobs and contractor opportunities and tax revenue representing a $40 million investment in the local economy.

However, councilmen Don Mills and Mark Davidson balked at the benefits Pitts mentioned. Both were concerned with the prospect of setting a precedent. Mills said there may be five or six other solar energy companies with plans to build in the county and they will want the same type of abatement.

“The county is ranked fourth in grain production, a valuable statistic for this county, the state and the world,” Davidson said. “With 1,600 acres there and options to expand and others, that’s potential over 6,000 acres here with lease options with solar multiple companies. That’s a dangerous precedent for the future of this county.”

Councilman and farmer Mark Smith also expressed his concern for the potential loss of farm ground.

“The other solar parks we have are smaller, found on non-productive farm ground,” Smith said. “Now were looking at prime farm ground all around the county. Being a farmer and knowing what agriculture means in this county, I sure would hate to see this. The good Lord isn’t making anymore farm ground. I sure hate to see us go down this road.”

Pitts said participating land owners have willingly made the choice to lease the land, and see that as a better financial option. He added that when the project is decommissioned, which could be 35 years out, that the land occupied by the solar panels would be returned to its natural state and that no permanent alterations would be made.

Pitts said there are currently 100 similar solar projects being proposed throughout Indiana, and that their company already has an agreement with a utility to purchase the generated solar energy.

“It is alarming that there are 100 projects like this in the state of Indiana,” Davidson said. “If we want to go from number four in agriculture to number one, we stay out of this and let the other 100 projects around the state go and we will be even better in agriculture in the long run.”

Several councilmen also took issue with the federal subsidies provided to renewable energy companies.

“As a business owner I’ve never been given this amount of help,” Councilman Gary Booth said.

Pitts said the company needs the abatement to keep the project viable and competitive, and asked the council to table the request so additional information and discussion could be shared with officials.

“We’re not here as a council to tell Mark or Don or the other farmers what to do with their land, that’s their decision, as a business owner I get that,” Councilman David Hunt said. “The only people this benefits is your people, what is the incentive for the county to approve an abatement for this? I don’t get it.”

Pitts pointed to the overall economic investment the company would be making to the county.

“If you can’t do it without tax abatement, tax incentives, credits, it’s not a viable industry,” Booth said. “And why do we want that when we have proof that ag is a viable industry.”

County Attorney Dan Taylor told council members that energy companies are being required to diversify their bases.

“It’s not just that solar is cheaper or wind is cheaper, they have to diversify, that’s why you are seeing these types of projects. The question here is whether the benefit of a project like this justifies the tax relief, and so in the middle there, although they were all good points, it started to sound a bit like a plan commission meeting, which would be a different meeting ... the vote isn’t about whether solar farms are good or bad or are they efficient or whatever, the question is do you want this kind of project here, does it create jobs, are there adverse implications? Even if you vote no, the project might still happen or another similar project will come along and take its place.”

The council voted 7-0 against the company’s request for an ERA designation.

Attempts to reach Pitts after the meeting were unsuccessful.

In other business, the council did grant a request by CSI to declare a parcel at 2326 S. U.S. 231 as an ERA, starting the process for a tax abatement. The local company’s expansion is expected to add up to 10 employees and $3 million in new tax revenues.

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