Traverse City News and Events

Townships Near Approval Of Solar Farms

By Beth Milligan | July 3, 2018

Two area townships are on the cusp of approving zoning changes that will allow solar energy farms to be built in their communities, while a third township has already given the green light to the construction of solar arrays.

Acme and Elmwood townships are both nearing final votes to approve amending their local ordinances to allow for new solar energy construction. Acme Township trustees will meet next Tuesday (July 10) at 7pm at Acme Township Hall to consider passing an amendment permitting commercial-grade solar installations that can generate energy to be sold to local utilities. Solar farms would be allowed in agricultural (A-1), planned shopping center (B-3), and material processing and warehousing (B-4) districts.

According to a memo from Acme Township Planning and Zoning Administrator Shawn Winter, the township has received “numerous inquiries” from companies interested in constructing solar arrays in Acme Township. “There seems to be two factors driving the interest in solar energy farms not only in the area, but throughout the state,” he wrote. “The first is the lower cost to manufacture the solar panels than in the past. The second is a legislative requirement that a certain percentage of an energy provider’s portfolio consist of green, renewable energy sources.” Michigan utilities must have at least 15 percent of their energy come from renewable sources by 2021, according to legislation passed in 2016.

Winter says township planning commissioners have been studying the possibility of allowing solar farms since December. The township hired consulting firm Beckett & Raeder to evaluate Acme’s suitability for solar arrays using GIS software; the firm’s report determined the township had nearly 763 acres with slope and sunlight exposure conditions capable of meeting at least minimal conditions for solar development. The firm excluded prime farmlands from its analysis “in an effort to preserve these valuable soils for agriculture” rather than solar panels.

At their June 11 meeting, Acme Township planning commissioners voted in support of allowing solar farms in the community and forwarded their recommendation to trustees for final approval. The proposed zoning changes include several regulations to reduce the visual impact of solar farms, including limiting the height of arrays to 16 feet at maximum tilt, requiring them to be set back at least 50 feet from property lines and 200 feet from residences, eliminating glare onto neighboring properties, and going through a landscaping approval process to ensure buffers are installed that help partially shield the arrays from public view.

“Given the rolling topography of the township, it will be essentially impossible to screen a solar energy farm from every vantage point,” Winter noted. “Ultimately, the planning commission created regulations that utilized existing setbacks, while creating stronger requirements for sites along public right-of-ways and residential dwellings with a landscape screen of evergreen trees planted in an arrangement and at a height that is effective at the time of installation.”

Elmwood Township is also nearing potential approval of solar farms this summer. After a recent overhaul of the township’s zoning code excluded solar farms – hampering Heritage Sustainable Energy’s plans to expand the company’s existing solar array on M-72 (pictured) – planning commissioners this spring revisited the ordinance. The planning commission recently recommended approval of amending the rules to allow solar arrays in agricultural districts; that proposal will next go to the Leelanau County planning commission and then the Elmwood Township board of trustees for final approval, according to township Zoning Administrator Sara Kopriva.

Meanwhile, Green Lake Township officials passed zoning changes in May allowing utility-scale solar energy systems as a conditional use in the township’s commercial and industrial districts, and as a special use in the R-5 rural residential district – or rural residential properties with a minimum size of five acres. Arrays must be at least 50 feet from property lines, must be placed in a way to avoid solar glare on neighboring properties, and may be subject to buffer requirements at the discretion of the planning commission.

One project is already underway in Green Lake Township thanks to the zoning changes. Heritage Sustainable Energy will begin generating solar energy from an array installation at 7668 US-31 in Grawn this summer, according to Township Zoning Administrator Kevin McElyea.

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