County receives SolSmart Gold

Pictured, from left, are Doug Powers, an Elkhart County planner; Jason Auvil, county planning manager; County Commissioners Suzie Weirick and Mike Yoder; Leah Thill, MACOG senior environmental planner; Building Commissioner Kevin Williams; and Plan Director Chris Godlewski.

GOSHEN — Elkhart County has received the SolSmart Gold designation for its solar power-friendly practices.

The U.S. Department of Energy program recognizes communities that have smoothed the way for people to install solar panels. The award was presented to the Elkhart County Commissioners on Monday by Leah Thill, senior environmental planner with the Michiana Area Council of Governments.

“It recognizes local governments across the nation that have worked to make it easier, faster, cheaper to build solar,” she said. “Elkhart County is one of the few communities here.”

Goshen and Nappanee have also been designated as SolSmart cities. Gold is the highest rating, she said.

“I think it means a lot to have a lot of communities in Indiana be recognized for it,” Thill said. “That’s especially because there’s a lot of economic potential and very local clean energy jobs that you just simply can’t move to another state.”

She said one piece of the program is solar readiness, such as getting inspectors and firefighters trained to work with solar power systems. Communities also make sure permitting staff is up to speed.

“So that they are familiar with the technology, they know the latest codes and can hand out code violations,” Thill said. “There’s a lot of DIY stuff that goes on, especially in this area, so that’s just really critical for safety.”

Another piece is solar friendliness, which includes making sure the permitting process is efficient and fees are reasonable. She noted that costs and wait times in Indiana tend to be pretty low.

“A lot of it’s just communicating and being transparent about the process,” she said. “Sometimes putting it down on paper is really helpful.”

The next piece is community engagement, Thill said. County Plan Director Chris Godlewski said his department has a pamphlet available for people that spells out the process and a link on their website with more information.

He also pointed to solar-friendly zoning ordinance tweaks, such as increasing the allowed panel size and reducing setback requirements which didn’t make much sense. Along with the training, he said it took a lot of coordination and a lot of time to reach this point.

Godlewski said solar installation activity has been pretty consistent in recent years, with about one special use request and at least two permits a month. He said he expects the pace to stay steady.

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