COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Fabius Township Planning Commissioner Dan Wilkins speaks on his issues with the township’s solar ordinance during Tuesday’s Fabius Township Planning Commission meeting.

Moratorium placed on Fabius solar ordinance

County Planning Comm., regional planning group to review ordinance; master plan to also be reviewed

FABIUS TWP. — After a roller coaster two days of contentious meetings in Fabius Township Tuesday and Wednesday, township officials voted to put a pause on an increasingly controversial solar energy ordinance.

During Tuesday’s Fabius Township Planning Commission meeting, commissioners voted to recommend to the main township board a request to send the township’s solar ordinance to both the St. Joseph County Planning Commission and the Southcentral Michigan Planning Council to review the ordinance, which the township board approved Wednesday by a unanimous voice vote.

In addition, at Wednesday’s township board meeting, following a nearly 40-minute closed session, a 180-day moratorium on the ordinance was put in place by a 4-1 vote. Along with the review, the township requested the Planning Commission undertake a review and update of the township’s Master Plan. Township Supervisor Ken Linn dissented in the vote.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Linn did not give a reason as to why the Master Plan, which was last updated in 2016, needed to be reviewed, citing the closed session where it was discussed.

The moratorium puts a pause on any activity related to the solar energy ordinance and developing projects and applications, however Planning Commission chair Randy Schmeling said the ordinance review by the county and Southcentral Michigan Planning will continue under the moratorium.

At Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, members of the public expressed their continuing thoughts on the ordinance in public comment, with all outside of Orion representatives in attendance in opposition. Many also made allegations that the ordinance favors solar energy companies, such as Orion Energy Solutions, the developer behind a proposed solar project in the township, who purportedly reached out to a township official concerning solar farms and assisted the township in writing the ordinance in its early stages. Some citizens called the situation a “conflict of interest.”

Those concerns led Planning Commission vice-chair Dan Wilkins to request that a second look be taken at the ordinance. He also cited more issues he had with the situation, including an overall lack of transparency in the process.

“What concerns me even more than working with somebody that’s in that business is that it was not transparent. I went through the minutes for the Planning Commission, and they are never mentioned by name. Orion is never mentioned by name, and matter of fact, solar farm or solar farm company is never mentioned by name. If you were following that by the minutes, you would not know,” Wilkins said. “A couple of times it’s mentioned an interested party, and that’s it. It does cast a shadow. I don’t like it, and I was on the township board at the time. When that ordinance came to us for final approval, I know for a fact we were not told there was a company involved, and that’s not right either.”

Wilkins then suggested resources for resolving the situation, including sending the ordinance to the county planning commission and Southcentral Michigan Planning.

“I want to know two things: Is there anything in our ordinance that can be viewed as being favorable to the interests of a solar farm? And I want to know, is there’s anything missing from our ordinance that would be viewed as being favorable to a solar farm?” Wilkins said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Schmeling brought the request before the township board during his report, outlining the situation discussed at the previous day’s meeting. Linn asked Schmeling if the board looked at a previous review done by the two groups prior to its adoption, with Schmeling saying there was more to review.

“Most of that review, it doesn’t pertain to some of the questions we have to ask,” Schmeling said. “This time we have specific things we’d like to have looked at.”

As for the Master Plan, which was not explicitly discussed outside of closed session Wednesday, many citizens have cited a phrase from the plan in its arguments against solar energy, which states the township “will maintain its scenic rural character and environmental quality by preserving its farmland, open space, wildlife habitats, and protecting its lakes, streams, wetlands and groundwater,” as well as “guide residential development in ways that preserve open space and restrict commercial and industrial development to the U.S. 131 and M-60 highway corridors.”

More public comment was held at Wednesday’s meeting, with the majority of citizens speaking in opposition to the project. One resident, Chuck Taylor, who owns a 40-acre farm near one of the proposed solar sites, said he felt like the project was an act of “railroading.”

“With this, if we can’t stop this, I’m thinking about getting out. I’m not gonna build the house that I dreamt of for my kids and my wife, and my dreams will change. It’s acceptable to some, but for me, it just doesn’t sit well with me,” Taylor said. “In my case, I’m three-quarters surrounded by it, they’ve talked to everyone else around me, and they’d put it around me the whole way if they could. I don’t know where the township was looking at what was good for the residents. To me, it feels like railroading, it feels like you’re forced to do things. In the railroad’s case, they took a 150-yard swipe or whatever it was, but this here, they’re going to cover it all up and it’s gone for the rest of my lifetime.”

Michael Cressner, Orion’s director of development, said the township’s decision Wednesday was “disappointing.” He said the company has “been here for several years” operating under the rules passed by the township and said it takes a long time for a project to get to the point of a land use application. Cressner also addressed the accusations of not being transparent, calling them “frustrating.”

“It’s a little frustrating to hear accusations that we haven’t been transparent; obviously if there are ways we could’ve communicated more to the public, that’s on us to improve on that, we don’t do things perfectly,” Cressner said. “As part of the process that we’ve been told, we can’t communicate with the township officially outside of public comments at these meetings, and we’d love the opportunity to provide actual information on the project to the public to discuss the actual facts. We can’t do that if there’s a moratorium in place.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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