ESCANABA — After much discussion — and more than one last-minute change — the Delta County Board of Commissioners has approved an ordinance that allows large-scale solar developments across much of Delta County. Changes to the draft ordinance submitted to council by the county planning commission earlier this month were significant, with perhaps the most sweeping change being council’s decision to allow large-scale solar developments as a use permitted in five zoning districts rather than conditional use.
Essentially, the change means that a solar developer has the legal right to build development in the C-1, C-2, and C-3 business districts, as well as the industrial (I), resource production (RP ) and agricultural (AP) districts, so long as the development meets the requirements set forth in the solar ordinance. If the council had left utility solar operations as conditional uses, the developers would have had to apply for a permit, have the development reviewed by the planning commission and allow neighboring property owners to voice their concerns at a public hearing. Had these concerns been deemed significant enough by the planning commission, the development could have been blocked.
According to Delta County Planning Commission Chairman Chris Williams, who spoke at Tuesday’s board meeting, the conditional use designation also had potential benefits for developers. For example, if a developer approached neighboring property owners and they were willing to accept less stringent setback requirements for the development, a developer could theoretically obtain a conditional use permit that would allow them to place solar panels closer to the lot lines.
The decision to make solar developments an authorized use, however, was not unanimous. Commissioners Theresa Nelson and John Malnar oppose the change, while commissioners Bob Barron, Dave Moyle and council chairman Patrick Johnson voted in favor of the change.
After a significant number of public comments, the setback requirements outlined in the draft order were also relaxed on Tuesday. The original project featured a detailed setback system, which required signs to be placed at least 30 feet from all existing property lines – the standard minimum for developments in the township – but included enhanced setbacks where an adjoining property did not participate in solar development. In these cases, the solar panels had to be 75 feet from the property line and 125 feet along the profile of a house on the non-participating parcel.
In the interest of conforming to the rest of the county’s zoning, the council decided to make all setbacks 30 feet. Again, Nelson and Malnar opposed the change.
It was noted by Johnson that a developer could seek to relax the development requirements outlined in the ordinance by going to the county’s zoning appeals board and seeking a waiver. A waiver is essentially a special permission for a development or use of land that would generally not be permitted because it is “improper” with the county ordinances code. Typically, the ZBA only grants variances after a project or use has been rejected by the planning commission, but because the council has chosen to make solar projects a permitted, unconditional use, the planning commission has no process for relaxing the requirements of the ordinance. all alone.
“I don’t think that’s the best way to go. I think it’s appropriate…to have a public hearing, to be in front of your neighbours, to talk with your neighbours, to bring the whole area affected by this development (to) be part of the conversation and be a part of that rather than just going to the appeal board and getting a waiver,” said Williams.
The process of finding a deviation from the ZBA also requires hearings and input from neighbors, but deviations are generally more difficult to obtain. That’s partly because, unlike conditional use, there are no board-approved guidelines on what should or shouldn’t warrant approval.
The only change to the ordinance that passed unanimously – though not without verbal objections – was an improvement to the downgrading rules. Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, the proposed order allowed power cables to be left in place running more than four feet underground when a solar project is decommissioned at the end of its lifespan. However, Johnson raised concerns about the possibility of unknown contaminants seeping into the ground.
“My concern is that by leaving something in the ground that we don’t care about today, will it be 100 years when we care or will it be a thousand years when we care. care? And (they) insult… our generation saying ‘Why didn’t you pull that out of the ground? Why didn’t you have them pull this out of the ground? Now we have to find it,” said Johnson, who likened the situation to toxic PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals”, which have historically been used in non-stick coatings and fire retardant foams and are now widespread in the environment.
The cables that would be used in a utility solar project are a mostly copper insulated metal core in a rubber or rubber casing. It is unclear how long it would take for the cables to break down into the ground.
Although he did not vote against changing the downgrading rules, Barron argued that there was no need to have downgrading rules in the order at all. He claimed this was an issue that should be addressed in a plague ordinance and that it was unfair to require decommissioning rules for solar power and not for other types of development.
“Are we writing a solar ordinance or are we writing a plague ordinance?” He asked.
Nelson disagreed with Barron’s position.
“We have to have something for the dismantling because who is going to pay for that? You and I probably won’t be alive, but these people here who are younger than us, we have to find the dollars to make sure we can cover this teardown,” she says.
Under the order, developers must provide the county with the project’s expected lifespan and estimated decommissioning costs, as well as a method to ensure funds will be available for decommissioning. Methods approved in the order include surety bonds, a cash payment to the county, or an escrow.
After the three changes were made to the draft, the council unanimously approved the ordinance as a whole. The new rules apply to all areas of the county that are subject to the county’s zoning ordinance.
Although this is only a brief part of the council’s discussion, the council discussed a plan that could eliminate zoning from the county altogether. No decision has been made on whether or not to repeal the zoning ordinance, but a committee has been formed to discuss appropriate fees to continue providing zoning to townships currently under county auspices. The four-person committee will be made up of Malnar, who represents the largest number of townships that would be affected; Barron, who has been a strong supporter of eliminating county zoning; and two representatives yet to be named from affected townships. Township representatives will be selected by the Delta County Township Association.