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Solar farm issue draws over 150

Jordan Beck | Daily Press Over 150 people were in attendance for a joint meeting of the Escanaba Township Board and Escanaba Township Planning Commission Monday. The meeting ran from 7:30 to 11:15 p.m.

ESCANABA TOWNSHIP — The Escanaba Township Board once again sent a proposed amendment to the township’s zoning ordinance dealing with solar power, which would allow for a large-scale solar generation facility to be built in the township, back to the Escanaba Township Planning Commission. Over 150 people were in attendance for a joint meeting on this topic that ran from 7:30 to 11:15 p.m. Monday.

An ordinance similar to the proposed zoning ordinance amendment was approved earlier this year by the board. However, the ordinance legally needed to be included in the township’s zoning ordinance and could not function as a stand-alone ordinance.

Because of this, the solar ordinance was converted into a proposed zoning ordinance amendment. During a meeting held in July, the planning commission voted almost unanimously — with the exception of Tom Rymkos — to recommend the township board approve a modified version of the proposed amendment.

In a meeting that took place last month, the township board voted to send the proposed amendment back to the planning commission. The board also agreed to hold a joint meeting with the planning commission at this time.

Early in the joint meeting Monday, representatives of Orion Renewable Energy Group — including Development Consultant Peter Moritzburke — and experts on topics related to Orion’s proposed solar project addressed the board and planning commission. Moritzburke said Orion has taken recent feedback from community members on its proposed project into consideration.

“As a result, we’ve developed suggested changes to the ordinance and we’ve modified the design of our proposed solar farm to take into account what we’ve heard,” he said.

These changes include the reduction of the project’s fenced-in area from 1,250 acres to less than 830 acres, as well as the inclusion of 500-foot setbacks from neighboring residences and 250-foot setbacks from road center lines.

Moritzburke also summarized Orion’s suggested changes to the proposed zoning ordinance amendment. Among other requests, Orion asked that a groundwater monitoring requirement be added to the amendment, that the height limit for solar panels be reduced from 16 feet to 12 feet, and that the sound limit at property lines be reduced from 60 decibels to 45 decibels.

“We feel these changes still allow for development of sensible solar projects while striking a balance with other community interests,” Moritzburke said.

Elaborating on the topic of groundwater, Moritzburke said he does not believe Orion’s project poses any risks related to groundwater contamination in Escanaba Township.

“For the record, please also understand that — if our project were ever to cause water pollution — we will have a legal responsibility for cleaning it up,” he said.

Members of the board and planning commission then had an opportunity to ask questions about the proposed zoning ordinance amendment and Orion’s requests. At this time, board member Linda Robitaille voiced concerns related to the future of solar panels in Escanaba Township if Orion was to go bankrupt.

“This township in no way can afford to clean up something that was a mess left behind,” she said.

In response, Orion Vice President of Development Ryan McGraw said plans exist for this contingency.

“That is the reason that we are posting a decommissioning bond in place before we ever start construction,” he said.

The meeting continued with a public comment period. During this period, attendees expressed their opinions — both positive and negative — on the topic of solar development in Escanaba Township.

Among the most prominent issues discussed during public comment was the potential effects of solar development on groundwater in Escanaba Township.

One of the people who spoke about this was Frank Chenier. According to Chenier, he has had significant professional experience related to the topic of groundwater, including 20 years he spent working as the Upper Peninsula’s district groundwater geologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Chenier said the presence of a thin soil layer and fractured bedrock in the Escanaba Township area make the area’s aquifer vulnerable to contamination. He also said Orion’s plans in Escanaba Township would involve the drilling of holes for solar panel support posts and fence posts.

“Many of these holes would potentially provide direct avenues for the migration of surface waters into the aquifer, and thus could severely contaminate our groundwater supply,” he said.

Dale Richer said he was against the use of good agricultural land in Escanaba Township for large-scale solar development.

“Tonight, I’m asking the board — I’m begging the board — please do not accept these amendments and please rescind the original ordinance,” he said.

Larry Klope felt township officials should take time to do additional research before making a decision on the proposed zoning ordinance amendment.

“We’ve got a lot of homework to do, folks. I strongly recommend that the board slow down; let’s do the job, let’s do it right,” he said.

Tensions ran high at some points during public comment. Jean Lancour, an Escanaba Township farmer, said Orion’s proposed project would allow her and other farmers to make money off of land they are unable to rent. After she said this, a number of meeting attendees shouted “Sell it!” in response.

“That’s easy said, but not easy done,” Lancour replied.

Brett French, UPPCO’s vice president of business development and communications, also spoke in support of solar development in Escanaba Township during public comment. UPPCO has entered into an agreement to buy energy from Orion’s proposed solar energy facility.

Once public comment was finished, Moritzburke returned to respond to some of the issues voiced by meeting attendees. Among these issues was potential groundwater contamination.

“If the township officials want to impose (an) additional requirement that at the time of building permit application, verification by a licensed engineer or geologist certify that the project does not have an effect on groundwater, they might consider doing that,” Moritzburke said.

He also felt the township had done its due diligence in developing the proposed zoning ordinance amendment.

“I think we’ve heard calls for delays, more studying, and committees to be formed, and I don’t think that that’s appropriate at this time,” Moritzburke said.

After Moritzburke’s closing remarks, planning commission members voted on a motion to recommend the board approve the proposed zoning ordinance amendment. Norm Fleury, Barry King, Cliff Barron and Ann LaBumbard voted in favor of this, and Rymkos and Jack Penegor voted against the motion.

Once the planning commission’s recommendation was made, Terry Burkhart — Escanaba Township’s attorney and president and principal of Burkhart, Lewandowski & Miller, P.C. — said the board had a number of options. According to Burkhart, the board could approve the recommendation, approve it subject to conditions, deny the recommendation or engage in additional fact-finding related to the topic at hand.

A motion to not accept the planning commission’s recommendation was made; for the purposes of clarity, this was later changed to a motion to reject the recommendation. When board members voted on the updated language for the motion, Robitaille, Pat Beauchamp and Alfred Gareau voted in favor of rejecting the request and Ray Hughes and Ken Brunette voted against this.

The board then voted on a motion to turn the proposed zoning ordinance amendment back to the planning commission for further study. The motion was unanimously approved.

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