Solar farm issue sent back to commission

ESCANABA TOWNSHIP – The Escanaba Township Board voted Monday to send a proposed change to the township’s zoning ordinance, which would allow for a large-scale solar generation facility to be constructed in the township, back to the planning commission and to hold a joint meeting between the board and the commission to discuss the issue.

A similar ordinance was approved earlier this year by the board. However, for legal reasons, the ordinance needed to be included as part of the township’s zoning ordinance and could not function as a stand-alone ordinance.

During a public comment period that ran for more than an hour — where 29 individuals expressed their opinions and one resident was removed from the township hall for swearing and refusing to yield the podium — the board heard arguments for and against the project.

Residents in favor of the project and zoning change argued the planned project by Orion Energy would create jobs; bring additional tax funding to Gladstone Area Schools, Bay College, road patrol, and the 911 authority; create clean energy; and provide savings for UPPCO energy customers following an agreement already reached between the two power companies.

Those opposed to the project raised concerns over glare, property values, loss of farm land and scenic views, and possible groundwater contamination.

Members of the township’s planning commission, UPPCO representatives, and representatives from Orion also spoke. Orion recommended three changes to the zoning proposal, which would take into account animal trails, reduce the maximum sound level from 60 decibels to 45 decibels averaged over a one hour period, and prohibit the installation of solar panels and certain related structures in rural areas or within 250 feet from the center of a public road right of way.

Even with the changes, the township board raised their own concerns over the plan, with multiple members expressing they felt the amendment was pushed through too quickly and board members were ill-prepared to vote on the issue because many of the members skipped planning commission meetings to avoid creating a quorum that would violate the Open Meetings Act.

“I’m a resident first. They don’t pay me enough to give up my residency,” said board member Linda Trombley-Robitaille, who expressed she was opposed to the amendment and found it “presumptuous” that UPPCO had entered into an agreement to purchase power from Orion through the solar farm.

Board Member Ray Hughes, who also serves on the planning commission, put forth a motion to approve the planning commission’s amendments with the three additional changes put forward by Orion. The motion died for lack of a second.

Because a joint meeting between the board must be appropriately posted, a planned special meeting of the planning commission set for Tuesday to discuss the details of the Orion project was canceled.