House panel passes solar package despite pushback from local groups

Kevon Martis representing Our Home, Our Voice at an Oct. 18 meeting of the House Energy, Communications and Technology Committee. (Michigan Advance/Kyle Davidson)

By Michigan Advance

October 19, 2023

BY KYLE DAVIDSON, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—Members of the House Energy, Communications and Technology Committee in their hearing on Wednesday voted to refer a package of bills that would move permitting of large-scale solar energy developments to the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC).

Ahead of the vote, the committee heard a barrage of testimony in opposition to the package from residents, farmland owners and local government groups concerned about the wording of the bills and how a change in permitting may impact their communities.

“We of course see this bill as a very significant overreach of local control of communities and their due right to plan and to zone for the outcomes and goals of their communities,” said Herasanna Richards, a legislative associate of the Michigan Municipal League (MML), which represents communities and community leaders in the state.

There are 26 localities in the state with policies blocking or restricting renewable energy development, according to a report from the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

The Michigan Association of Counties (MAC) also testified against the bills, stating its opposition to any preemption of local policies, practices, regulations and ordinances related to renewable energy facilities.

“We cannot continue to revisit one size fits all methods. Each community has different preferences for setbacks, berms, trees, panel heights, pollinators, decibel levels, safety plans, etc. They cannot be satisfied by uniform standards to meet existing county ordinances,” said Madeline Fata, a governmental affairs associate for the organization. “Some are more, some are less restrictive than what is proposed in this legislation, but each is tailored to the wants and needs of that specific community.

Under these bills, the MPSC — which regulates electrical companies in the state — would be the main avenue for permitting large-scale renewable energy projects, however developers would still have the opportunity to pursue approval from a local planning authority, MPSC Chair Dan Scripps said during his testimony at the last committee meeting.

While Scripps noted the Commission’s authority over the siting of pipelines and high voltage electrical transmission lines, Fata pushed back against Scripps’ previous testimony.

“Last week we heard the argument that other energy facilities are regulated by the [MPSC] but I want to reiterate that all energy generation facilities currently adhere to local zoning and the [MPSC] is only zoning for pipelines at the moment,” Fata said.

Deborah Hopkinson of White River Township also expressed concern at how the MPSC will determine public benefits used to justify an energy facility’ construction, echoing concerns raised at the previous committee meeting.

Additionally, Kevon Martis representing Our Home, Our Voice, an organization advocating for local control of land use, raised concerns on the lack of language in the bills to protect avian species and bats, as well as to address light pollution from wind turbines. Martis, a Lenawee County commissioner and zoning administrator, also expressed concern at the timeline for these proposed permitting changes.

“Those of us who have been involved in the zoning process for the last 15 years or so, like I have, are amazed at the idea that this body could consider adopting what amounts to a statewide zoning ordinance with only two hearings in seven days time,” Martis said.

While zoning for a gas station or other facilities typically takes one to two years with extensive stakeholder and community input, the committee has been handed the bills and asked to vote on policy to change zoning for the entire state in seven days, Martis said.

Although the committee announced that it would meet yesterday afternoon, the agenda did not list which bills would be up for consideration. The committee issued an updated agenda with plans to address energy siting bills this morning, hours before the hearing.

Supporters of the bill have argued that allowing farmers the option to site solar energy on their farmland despite local ordinances would benefit farmers by opening up an additional revenue stream.

While some farmers have testified that this legislation would help them retain control of their family’s farmland and would protect their property rights, others have voiced their opposition saying the package would take control away from rural communities.

Before voting on the bills, committee members considered amendments to the package.

While House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck), one of the package’s sponsors, testified last week that the bills did not contain language giving the MPSC authority to claim eminent domain over land to site renewables, the committee unanimously approved an amendment that bars the use of eminent domain in advancing developments approved by the commission.

The committee also approved amendments clarifying the definition of public benefits considered while reviewing permitting applications for energy facilities, and creating a fund paid for by the developer for residents to contest an application for a large-scale development.

While many Republican members of the committee proposed amendments to the package, including giving communities the final say in the MPSC’s zoning decisions, and eliminating project labor agreement requirements for developers, the amendments were not adopted.

When the committee took votes on the bills, the results split along party lines with members of the committee voting 9-7. State Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) passed on voting on the bills.

The bills will move to the House floor for consideration.

While Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced a number of bills aimed at transitioning Michigan to clean energy sources, Republicans have been critical of efforts to transition the state to 100% renewable sources.

Following the meeting, House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) and Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet), the committee’s minority vice chair, issued a joint statement opposing the bills.

“In one meeting, Lansing Democrats promised to continue working with stakeholders to build consensus. In the very next meeting, they bulldozed the first step of their radical Green New Deal through committee on a party-line vote,” Wendzel said.

“As these bills move forward, I’ll continue fighting to ensure Michiganders who made their will known at the ballot box are heard in Lansing,” Wendzel said.

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license. 

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