On the eve of Halloween, I traveled through the rain and late fall darkness to attend the Township meeting of a township in which I do not live. But I attended with a mission to support people and practices that need defense in our Democracy.
The Fight for Solar Ordinances
For the past two years, my mostly rural county in central Michigan has debated the pros and cons of amending the zoning of agricultural land to create guidelines for the installation of large-scale solar arrays. An energy company had approached farm owners about purchasing land for the installations.
In order to build solar installations that produce enough energy to be profitable and desirable to an energy company, large uninterrupted areas of acreage with few obstacles like trees or rocks in the soil are preferred. Farm fields fit the bill.
And with the realities of climate change in the here and now, more and more family farms are unable to plant or unable to harvest due to weather conditions. Families cannot make enough to live on or retire on from their land. Now the economic downturn as a result of a trade war between the U.S. and China has even more family farms looking for ways to survive.
Therefore, the County Community Development department drew up what is considered to be some of the most conservative and restrictive guidelines for solar arrays in the state. These ordinances were designed to proactively address all of the concerns that land owners have about the construction of these installations, the panels themselves, and the future of any land where they are installed. Without these specific ordinances enacted, the proposed solar arrays would have been permitted under Special Permitting without specific guidelines pertaining to the unique nature of the projects.
These ordinances were adopted by the County in March 2019. As of November 1, 2019, no large scale solar arrays have been approved for construction under the ordinances. There is a scheduled hearing for approval of the first application on December 3, 2019.
Bumps in the Road
The standing-room only crowd on October 30 assembled quietly as stragglers entered a few minutes after the 6 pm meeting start time. Glancing around the room, I only recognized a few faces—people I had personally invited to the meeting.
This Special Meeting was called to take a vote of the Township Board whether to establish their own separate Zoning and Planning Commission separate from the County’s Community Development department.
After calling the meeting to order, the Chair mistakenly opened up Public Comment before the Clerk read written correspondence into the record. After the four messages were read, audience members began to slowly walk to the podium.
I was the fourth person to speak. I introduced myself as a resident of the county concerned about the Township’s proposal to duplicate services already offered by the County and for which Township residents had already paid. The Township would have to hire staff, pay them salaries and benefits, as well as add them to the pension plan.
I asked the Board members what they would say to residents who saw an increase in their taxes to pay for these duplicate services. It is an irresponsible financial decision, I stated, and one which they were not elected to levy.
I sounded like a Tea Party, ‘lower taxes and offer fewer services’ supporter. But in this case, our interests aligned.
Why was I there with these arguments?
Because the arguments in favor of renewable energy, property rights, jobs and tax revenue, and environmental safeguards were not resonating with the people who filled the room that evening. This vocal minority of Township residents were there to express their disdain for disruption of the scenery, economic exploitation of the land, and outside interference in local planning. But they were quick to assert that they were not against solar energy.
Disruption of the Scenery
They were lamenting the loss of cash crop fields and diminished wildlife, a place for kids to play, and even sunsets were both farm owners and homeowners.
The homeowners in the audience cited their ‘dream homes’ and decision to move to the area because of the rural scenes as their objection to solar arrays. The homeowners were newer to the area, owners of a small plot along a road, and not engaged in agri-business.
These homeowners had already taken advantage of the ability to rezone agricultural land for residential use. They were there simply to be able to look at the fields.
Economic Exploitation of the Land
Farm owners accused the energy company of buying the land for purely economic and profit reasons, whereas farming itself is one of this country’s oldest economic and profit pursuits.
Farm owners in the Township had already benefited from the generations before them that had deforested this area and cultivated it into farm land. Wildlife was affected. Wetlands were destroyed. And the fertility of the soil was heavily impacted.
But after several hundred years, this land is now considered farm land only. For plowing. For corn and soybeans which exhaust the soil’s nutrients. To boost the yield of the fields, chemicals are enlisted and seep into the ground water. End-of-season fields are turned over before winter, contributing to soil erosion.
Outside Interference in Local Planning
Many from the audience decried their inability to ‘control’ the zoning, being ‘subject to the County’. They asserted that their concerns were ignored by the County Board and their rights trampled. No one from the County Board of Commissioners was present at the meeting to address concerns.
These same proponents of local control were desperate to deny their neighbor his right to sell his land to an energy company for solar panel installation. They wanted control to take away another resident’s control over his own property.
No One Here is Anti-Solar
But more than one person stated that they preferred the solar arrays be installed elsewhere.
The Township has remitted the authority to zone to the County to this point in time. Only now, on the eve of the approval of a large solar array at the County level, has the desire to wrest control of the situation come to a head. No one is against solar, except when it’s in their own backyard.
Many misconceptions and outright false claims were made about solar panels, these types of installations, and their construction. Among these were assertions of toxic waste, electrical fires, damage to roads from heavy trucks, destruction of wildlife migration routes, and soil contamination.
None of the damage to the environment has been shown to happen on existing solar arrays elsewhere. And farm equipment puts as much strain on roads as other large trucks.
Plus, white tail deer are fantastic fence jumpers.
Some of the assertions were downright wrong. One man claimed that because solar is only collected during the day, at night electricity would still have to be produced by power plants using other energy sources. Another referenced soil nutrients being “burned up” by solar panels. And another pleaded with the Board not to “turn our beautiful farmland into some monster.”
So how was my presence defending Democracy?
Democracy is based on a governance by the will of the majority. But too often in the past 50 years, the majority has gone silent in all levels of government. We have lost our ability to engage in our civic duty to ensure that our will is expressed and carried out.
The Township Board had decided in September to send out a survey to Township residents asking them to weigh in on the zoning issue. Early in the meeting on October 30, it was mentioned that the report of that survey had not been reported.
Later on, it was revealed by the Board that the survey had never been sent to residents. And in a 4-1 vote, the Board decided not to send it out at all.
The majority was out of luck.
I also witnessed flagrant disregard for policy and procedure in the manner in which the meeting was conducted and the way in which decisions were made. The Clerk even had to reference the Township Association’s own rules because the Board was in violation of them.
Without the Rule of Law, whether that be local ordinances or the Constitution itself, Democracy cannot function. It requires a level playing field of agreed-upon norms and standards. This ensures fairness, due process, and ethical behavior.
Decisions made hastily, without proper procedure, and literally after dark (and in the rain) are incompatible with the Democracy I know. Like solar panels that collect energy during the day (and store it in batteries for use at night), Democracy works best in the plain view of all.
Videos of the Meeting:
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