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Controversial solar ordinance could be revived

ESCANABA TOWNSHIP — Following the failure of a signature drive that would have placed returning local control over wind and solar developments on the November ballot, Escanaba Township this week took actions that could revive a controversial stand-alone solar ordinance that was abandoned five years ago.

“It’s coming and if we have a chance to get out in front of it and get some money for it and we already have something on the books … that’s dusty, I think we need to have that looked at and give us a chance to work on it,” said Escanaba Township Board Trustee Norm Fleury during Tuesday’s meeting.

No formal vote was taken on the issue, but the board agreed by consensus to send the ordinance to the township’s attorney and see what other options were available.

The old ordinance — which was adopted in 2019 and deemed insufficient by the township’s Then-Attorney Terry Burkhart only a few months later — was less restrictive than the ordinance now in place in the township. It was adopted at roughly the same time the township adopted its 2019 master plan, which calls solar a “goal” or “opportunity” six separate times and suggested the township pursue a special pro-solar development designation.

The ordinance was also adopted two years after landowners in the township were first approached by Orion Energy, which sought to lease the land of local farmers for the development of the a utility-scale solar facility. That development would have been constructed in the Flat Rock area of the township, prompting a number of individuals who live near the edges of the proposed solar facility to join the township’s planning commission after the 2019 ordinance was adopted. Among those residents were Township Clerk Theresa Chenier and Township Treasurer Kim Knauf-Wycoff, both of whom joined the planning commission before joining the township board and have openly opposed solar development.

The ordinance was found insufficient by Burkhart because it was not part of the township’s zoning ordinance. Rather than take the approved language from the 2019 solar ordinance and merge it into the zoning ordinance, the township formed an ad hoc committee that drafted a 500-page report on solar in the township, hired a new attorney that specialized in solar regulation, and drew up a new, more restrictive solar amendment to the zoning ordinance.

The 13-page amendment, which was adopted in 2022, uses an overlay district to restrict utility-scale solar development to an area of less than 400 acres bordering Brampton Township, east of the Escanaba River, the vast majority of which is contained in a single parcel. A further restriction in the ordinance limits solar developments to 20% of a single parcel, leaving less than 80 buildable acres in the township.

The issue of solar in the township became a county-wide issue in 2023, when Then-Delta County Commissioner Bob Barron launched an effort to annex roughly 19,000 acres of land from Escanaba Township to neighboring Cornell Township. The move would have placed the land under the county’s auspice for zoning, and under the less-restrictive solar regulations Barron helped write, allowing for a development similar to the one proposed by Orion to move forward.

The annexation failed and Barron was recalled earlier this year.

However, it was Governor Getchen Whitmer who may have made the most impact on the future of solar in the township. She announced last August, only three days after her visit to the 2023 Upper Peninsula State Fair, that transferring control over permitting for solar developments to the Michigan Public Service Commission was part of her goals for the remainder of the year. The Democrat-controlled legislature pushed through green-energy legislation that Whitmer signed late last year doing just that. Barron and others linked to proposed solar developments have indicated they believe Whitmer was aware of the dispute between themselves and Escanaba Township and that it contributed to her signing the legislation.

The new rules, which go into effect Nov. 29, require a local unit of government to adopt a compatible renewable energy ordinance, or “CREO,” that is no more restrictive to the state’s newly development requirements for solar and wind power facilities. If a community doesn’t adopt a CREO, they will have no opportunity to participate in the development process and all permitting decisions will be made by the Michigan Public Service Commission.

Citizens for Local Choice, a group opposing the new legislation, attempted to put a referendum of the new laws on the November ballot but failed to garner enough signatures. When contacted by the Daily Press, the group declined to comment on what their struggles were or how many signatures were collected locally, but signature collection resources indicate there was no volunteer captain assigned to manage collection in Delta County during the signature drive. The next time the question could be placed on the ballot is 2026.

Barron was before the township board Tuesday to request that the township forward the 2019 ordinance to its attorney to develop a CREO quickly, citing an incentive through the Renewable Ready Communities Award, which would award a one-time payment of $5,000 per megawatt to communities that both host a renewable development and manage local permitting. A separate program awards $2,000 per megawatt to host communities that do not have a CREO.

“It’s here, it’s going to happen — I believe very strongly that it’s going to happen now — and it would behoove the township to take advantage of these incentives,” said Barron.

Barron said he believes the 2019 ordinance is close to being a CREO as it stands.

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