Recent news regarding the development of St. Joseph County in the New Carlisle area has this old and familiar feeling.
Last week, Christian Sheckler from The Tribune signaled that a project is in progress who would build a huge solar power farm. It would also set up a new special tax district that could be used to funnel money into tax incentives for St. Joseph County’s business and development efforts in the “Indiana Enterprise Center” industrial area.
The farm, nicknamed “Project Honeysuckle,” would cover up to 1,900 acres of farmland bordered by roughly US Highways 20 and Spruce, Tamarack and Darden. County officials are working with renewable energy company RES to build it. Last week, the company confirmed the plan, which was presented to members of St. Joseph County Council, the Redevelopment Commission and the Council of Commissioners in a closed-door meeting in April, according to a slide show. obtained by The Tribune. The developer of the project for RES said on Tuesday that the Honeysuckle solar farm had been under construction for more than a year.
This week, county officials had yet to publicly disclose the proposed solar farm or details of the new tax increase funding district that would be created for the project. County Commissioners Chairman Andy Kostielney, Economic Development Director Bill Schalliol and County Council Member Mark Telloyan, who represents the New Carlisle area, declined or did not respond to interview requests regarding the project.
It’s these details that have this familiar feeling, one we’ve commented on on several occasions specifically in relation to the county’s IEC plans. Since its inception, the Indiana Enterprise Center, the industrial “mega-park” also under development in the New Carlisle area, has been plagued by communications and public relations missteps from county officials. This project is being fought by a vocal coalition which includes farmers and environmental activists.
Whether the solar farm project creates a new tax-raising funding district is likely to generate debate. Chris Cobb, a member of the Open Spaces and Agricultural Alliance, a group that organized itself against the CIS, said he supported the general idea of a solar farm, but not a project that relies on the TIF.
“If what was on offer was just a 1,900 acre solar farm on this land, period, we wouldn’t be against that,” Cobb said. “What we are opposed to is the extension of the TIF district as part of the design of the project due to all the negative effects of a TIF.
In a 2019 commentary, we urged county officials to change their strategy to involve residents on the industrial park, which they opened up to criticism with their haphazard and patchy communication. We noted that the county has spent millions on consulting fees for planning and studies, “yet residents feel the authorities are not being forthright about the plans.”
The secrecy surrounding the solar farm project provides another example of the lack of transparency surrounding the development of St. Joseph County. It’s an old, familiar feeling, and not a good one.