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Committee to study solar farm issue

ESCANABA TOWNSHIP — The Escanaba Township Planning Commission voted unanimously in favor of forming an ad hoc committee that will discuss the future of solar power in the township Monday.

In a joint meeting held last month, 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 planning commission for further study.

During Monday’s regular meeting of the planning commission, Chair Jack Penegor said he did not wish to resubmit the proposed zoning ordinance amendment in its existing state. The proposed amendment was similar to a solar ordinance approved by the board earlier this year; however, the ordinance legally needed to be included in the township’s zoning ordinance and could not function as a stand-alone ordinance.

“I want to start over from scratch,” he said, which was met with applause from meeting attendees.

The planning commission will seek input from the new ad hoc committee as it continues its work related to solar power in the township. Penegor said the committee would ideally consist of three or four people in favor of solar development in Escanaba Township and an equal number of people opposed to this, with a neutral individual serving as the committee’s chair.

Issues the committee may focus on include the potential effects of solar development on groundwater in the township, the loss of agricultural land in the area and the benefits of solar energy. It was noted applicants with relevant experience and skills will be preferred, and the planning commission will be able to accept or reject any candidate.

Terry Burkhart — Escanaba Township’s attorney and president and principal of Burkhart, Lewandowski & Miller, P.C. — said the ad hoc committee will not have the final say on the matters it will discuss.

“They will make a recommendation saying ‘here’s what we think you should do’ … and then, ultimately, the planning commission would then have to reach a conclusion as to whether or not it’s going to accept that recommendation, and then the planning commission would forward that back on to the board,” he said.

While the ad hoc committee would not be required to meet in open session, any decisions made by the planning commission or township board regarding the committee’s recommendations would take place during a public meeting.

Meeting attendees shared their thoughts on the ad hoc committee Monday. Scott Knauf said he was opposed to the possibility of an Orion Renewable Energy Group representative being on the committee.

“We, the township, should be able to come up with our ordinance — we are the ones that live here; we are the ones that are going to be seeing it and looking at it,” he said.

Vicki Gobert was concerned by what she viewed as the exclusion of area residents without a scientific background from the ad hoc committee.

“It’s hurtful for the rest of us who have lived in this neighborhood our entire lives,” she said.

However, Penegor said the planning commission is simply looking for people with “expertise” to serve on the committee.

“When I said ‘expertise,’ I didn’t say it’s got to be geological or it’s got to be electrical. I said ‘expertise,'” he said.

Applications for the ad hoc committee will be open for the next 21 business days. Those interested in applying for the committee are asked to email Penegor at forester@chartermi.net.

The planning commission’s next meeting — during which commission members are expected to vote on which applicants should serve on the ad hoc committee — has been set for Monday, Nov. 4.

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