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Report sheds light on solar farm issue

ESCANABA TOWNSHIP — An ad hoc committee focusing on the future of solar power in Escanaba Township shared its recommendations with the Escanaba Township Planning Commission Monday. The committee’s report has since been posted on Escanaba Township’s official website.

In November 2019, nine applicants were chosen to serve on the ad hoc committee and a mission statement for the committee was approved. The statement called for the ad hoc committee to explore and provide a report and recommendations to the planning commission on a proposed amendment to the township’s zoning ordinance dealing with solar power, as well as a related special land use application to operate an industrial solar farm or farms in the township.

The ad hoc committee’s report, which was provided to the planning commission at its Monday, March 2 meeting, does not advocate for or against Orion Renewable Energy Group’s proposed Escanaba Township solar energy farm.

“It is important to note that the Committee was not tasked with making a recommendation regarding whether the Orion project should be permitted by the Township and it expresses no opinion in such respect. The Committee interpreted its mission as investigating the impacts, actual or possible, positive or negative, addressed in the Mission Statement and making recommendations to the Planning Commission,” the report stated.

The ad hoc committee also did not set out to write a new amendment to Escanaba Township’s zoning ordinance in its report.

“It is not a substitute for the deliberations of the Planning Commission after a full-blown public hearing,” the report stated.

A number of legal issues arose over the course of the ad hoc committee’s meetings. The committee sought advice from Terry Burkhart — Escanaba Township’s attorney and president and principal of Burkhart, Lewandowski & Miller, P.C. — on these issues, which included the legal significance of aesthetic concerns, the adequacy of financial security provisions for solar facilities’ decommissioning, legal implications related to tax abatement, exclusionary zoning and community benefit agreements.

The first topic addressed in the report was that of emergency response. The ad hoc committee recommended that emergency response plans be submitted for review and approval to the Escanaba Township fire chief and any other relevant local authorities before special land use permits for solar farms are issued, that landscaping at solar facilities be developed to minimize fire risk and hazards for emergency responders, and large-scale solar applicants provide and pay for training for fire prevention and response practices at their facilities.

One subject that has been heavily discussed at recent township meetings has been the threat of groundwater contamination as a result of solar development. Based on its findings, the ad hoc committee determined that large-scale solar projects can be built in areas of Escanaba Township in ways that can avoid or minimize any negative impact to groundwater.

The committee recommended methods defined in the State of Michigan’s water well manual and abandoned water well plugging manual be followed in the installation of piers for large-scale solar farms; that a groundwater impact study be commissioned by applicants for special land use permits for large-scale solar farms; and that abandoned wells on large-scale solar farm sites be plugged before construction begins.

Regarding the financial impact of solar projects, the ad hoc committee recommended that Escanaba Township consider adopting provisions to ensure it would not be responsible for costs associated with decommissioning large-scale solar facilities and related land restoration efforts.

The ad hoc committee also recommended that applicants for large-scale solar project land use permits develop best management practices in project design and operation to minimize negative impacts on wildlife in the township. That applicants should include native, non-invasive plant species in their landscaping plans, and that fencing should not impede movement of wildlife and minimize the fragmentation of wildlife habitat to the extent possible.

The report stated best management practices for large-scale solar farms should include wildlife corridors of at least 100 feet, limits on fenced areas of roughly 2,500 feet on a side, the consideration of required setbacks as areas for wildlife movement and foraging, and reasonable wildlife impact mitigation standards in comparison to standards imposed on other land uses in the township.

Committee members were split on some of the issues addressed in the report. On the topic of loss of farmland, the committee recommended that the township consider incorporating, by reference, current Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development requirements regarding large-scale solar farms on prime farmland. The committee also suggested the township adopt zoning language requiring the planting and long-term maintenance of native plants and require land used for solar farms be returned to conditions suitable for currently-permitted uses after solar facilities are decommissioned. The report also suggested allowing large-scale solar projects to be permitted as a special land use only in C-3 commercial, industrial, resource production, agricultural (AP), and timber production districts.

In a dissenting opinion, it was recommended that AP land be removed from consideration for usage in large-scale solar farms.

“We feel prime farmland is too valuable to be converted to utility scale solar and should be excluded from the use of any such solar projects,” the dissenting opinion stated.

Regarding setbacks, the ad hoc committee recommended that minimum setbacks of 75 feet from non-participating property lines, 100 feet from property lines where solar panels would be installed on three or more sides of a neighboring non-participating property, and 250 feet from public road centerlines be established.

Also related to aesthetics were recommendations that the township take a district’s “character,” potential conflicts with existing uses, and impacts on governmental services and infrastructure into account when looking at special land use applications related to large-scale solar projects. Creating year-round vegetative buffers, setting specific maximum heights, formally assessing glare, and requiring dark-sky compliance were also discussed, as was fencing and limiting the sound levels at large-scale solar projects to 45 a maximum of decibels.

Along with the report itself, seventeen exhibits included in the report packet are available on the township’s website. Exhibits include the ad hoc committee’s mission statement, a bibliography, scientific studies and other documents.

To view the report packet in its entirety, visit www.escanabatownship.org and click “Public Announcements.”

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