CALEDONIA TWP. — After nearly three hours of discussion and another round of public comment regarding the proposed 200-acre solar farm along Lyons Road, the Caledonia Township Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) moved closer toward a decision Wednesday, resolving four of the five main issues in the local residents’ appeal and tabling the final issue, buffering and landscaping, until the board’s next meeting Sept. 4. Wednesday’s meeting served as a second public hearing for the solar farm appeal, as both sides, Renergetica and local residents, provided an update on where they stand regarding the proposed project. Renergetica highlighted new concessions, including increased vegetation and the construction of berms, while area residents upheld their concerns regarding pollution as well as the company’s proposed decommissioning plan.
“It’s tough because both sides bring up compelling issues, you know, Renergetica, they’re a company, they have a right to open up business in our community, and there are a lot of people that support them, not very many that were here, but I do hear from people that support them coming in. At the same time the people that were here, they still have some legitimate concerns,” Josh Dewley, a member of the ZBA, said. “I don’t mind staying until 10 p.m., having these three hour meetings because it’s important that we make sure we are here for the people. We have to make the best decision based on the people that are here and the concerns they raise. It was good to see Renergetica willing to move in the direction that many residents want to see. They’re not in total agreement, but it’s nice to see them moving toward some reasonable compromises.”
In the local residents’ appeal of Renergetica’s site plan, five main areas of concern were outlined, including the perceived inadequacy of the glare analysis, the potential for pollution, the positioning of inverters, what residents believe is an ineffective decommissioning plan and the lack of an adequate visual barrier.
Eric Weber, speaking on behalf of his fellow neighbors, said the company’s $300,000 decommissioning plan is simply not adequate with respect to covering the cost of a full-scale removal and cleanup.
“I think it’s really important that the township protects itself, the leasing landowners and all the township citizens from any potential liability in the future,” Weber said. “Today’s dollars are not dollars 35 years from now, we all know that. We don’t want to be left at the end when the third owner of this solar farm, because it’s quite possible that it’ll change hands multiple times, just decides to say I’m cutting my losses.”
After hearing from both sides, the ZBA decided to act on the first four items, siding with Renergetica, with strings attached.
For example, in regards to the proposed decommissioning plan, the ZBA ruled that Renergetica must seek out an impartial third party to conduct a cost estimate for the project’s removal. Once the estimate is received, it must go before the Caledonia Township Board for consideration.
The ZBA also ruled that in regards to routine testing for contaminants at the site, the township will follow the guidelines of the Shiawassee County Drain Commission, on the condition that testing be done at least once every five years.
The final issue before the board, the perceived lack of an adequate visual barrier, was tabled Wednesday, as board members encouraged both parties to try to come to an agreement amongst themselves before the next ZBA meeting Sept. 4.
The $30-million Lyons Road Solar Project, if built, is expected to produce 26.8 megawatts of electricity, which could power up to 26,000 homes. Lake Mary, Florida-based Renergetica hopes to build the project on property leased from two different landowners. The property extends from Cornell Road south to Lyons Road.
Justin Vandenbroeck, vice president of development at Renergetica, said the solar project is expected to create 150 to 200 temporary construction jobs and take between six and 12 months to complete.
He also said the solar project will generate more than $300,000 annually in property tax revenue, and operate for at least 35 years.
The proposed project will be split between two adjoining parcels that send power into the same Consumers Energy substation along Cornell Road.
The first parcel, starting near the corner of Cornell Road and Ridgeview Drive, is 20 acres and could hold 8,064 solar panels. It will generate 2.8 megawatts of electricity at peak performance.
The second adjacent parcel, to the south and reaching Lyons Road, is expected to be 210 acres and include 72,000 solar panels. The site will generate 24 megawatts at peak performance.
Renergetica received both its special use permit and site plan approval May 2, from the township planning commission. The project was expected to go before the township board, but Weber and his fellow neighbors chipped in to cover the $600 non-refundable administrative fee for an appeal of the approval of the site plan.
During his brief presentation Wednesday night, Vandenbroeck maintained that Caledonia Township is not the only authority Renergetica has to answer to. Prior to construction at the site, the company must also receive approval from the Shiawassee Drain Commission for a drain permit, gain approval from the Shiawassee County Health Department for a soil erosion and sediment control permit, as well as gain approval from the state for a storm water construction permit. Furthermore, the project must receive approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Vandenbroeck said.
On July 31, Vandenbroeck and Weber held a two-hour phone conference, in which a few concessions were made on behalf of Renergetica with respect to the size and scope of a visual barrier at the site.
“We’ve replaced deciduous trees with evergreen trees, we’ve imposed a higher density of trees and higher density of bushes upon ourselves, and that’s not necessarily required,” Vandenbroeck said. “To accomodate elevation differences between the site and adjacent properties, we’ve incorporated four-foot-tall berms and more mature trees to help accomodate that so at no point when there’s residential homes in close proximity to the site will there be trees under five feet to their view.”
The proposed changes to the site plan will cost approximately $250,000, according the Vandenbroeck.
As for setting up a future meeting with area residents, Vandenbroeck said he’s willing to listen their concerns, but at some point there’s limitations on how much the company can do.
“We still want to have ongoing communication with the community with the understanding that we have gone through a pretty in-depth design and cost analysis on what is commercially feasible, without making a project uneconomical, right? We still have to run a business. We still want to create jobs in the community, we still want to generate clean energy in the community, we still want to be a contributor to the tax base of the community,” Vandenbroeck said.
Weber said he plans to continue reaching out to local residents in order to ensure all voices are heard. He hopes to meet with Vandenbroeck before the next meeting.
“We’ve made some progress and I appreciate Renergetica working with us, they’re showing a measure of good faith in wanting to try to find some middle ground which is good, it’s positive,” Weber said. “I just want to make sure that all of the people that are affected have their day in court, have their opportunity to voice their needs… It’s hard when you try to get a neighborhood coalition together and you don’t have everybody’s contact information, and you don’t have 24 hours out of every day to go seek people out,” he continued.
The next ZBA meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 4. The board has encouraged both parties to meet for negotiations prior to the meeting, and a has asked for the submission of a report detailing any negotiations no later than a week before the meeting, should any negotiations take place.