After months of research, debate, and rewrites, the Oneida Township board voted in favor of a new solar panel ordinance on Tuesday, Feb. 13. The ordinance created in response to the ongoing Geronimo project and debate restricts solar panel developments to allotted commercial and industrial areas within the township. With the new ordinance, Geronimo will not be able to develop some 500 acres of farmland in Oneida Township, which was the largest portion of land the company targeted for the solar project.
Geronimo is a word residents of Oneida and Benton Township have heard a lot in the last year. Geronimo Energy is the wind and solar energy company that has planned to develop more than 600 acres of farmland on the border of Oneida and Benton Townships with a solar panel installation. The solar panel amassment would essentially be a forest of solar panel units all connecting to the Oneida substation. The goals and benefits of such a project are simple — create clean energy, for which the county can increase its tax revenue, and local land owners can profit.
The Geronimo project, however well intentioned, has received significant negative attention from residents of both Oneida and Benton Townships. The list of grievances is extensive, but rests mainly a few basic points. The primary arguments against the development of a solar complex on the aforementioned farmland include the project’s divergence from the Eaton County Master Plan adopted in 2011, the project’s intent to develop on prime farmland protected by PA 116, and public consensus against such a complex in rural parts of the county.
The 193-page county master plan designates specific areas for industrial, light industrial, commercial, and farmland. The Geronimo project developing on county designated farmland is in direct contradiction to the county master plan, and would be a special accommodation the likes of which some residents feel would not be granted to local businesses. In Oneida Township there is also prime farmland protected by Michigan’s PA 116 legislation, which the Geronimo project would undeniably be violating. The public consensus over protecting the farmland in question has been building for the last year, beginning with twin petitions that were passed through Oneida and Benton.
With the passing of Oneida’s new ordinance, many residents of Benton Township are attempting to lay pressure on the county to approve a similar ordinance for Benton. Oneida had the authority as a charter township to implement and enforce their own ordinance, whereas an ordinance for Benton would have to be approved by the county board of commissioners. Benton Township residents like Sue Deer Hall, who started Benton Township’s petition, are strongly encouraging other residents to attend a planning and zoning public meeting Tuesday March 6 to voice their thoughts on the Geronimo project.
“We’re trying to get the point across that we’re not against solar, but we’re against putting a complex on good farmland,” said Deer Hall. “We value farmland. Some people don’t know how much comes off an acre of farmland, but farmers are intimately aware of that.”
Hall echoes a sentiment that many residents have voiced. Solar may be clean energy that saves on carbon emissions, but active farmland, especially land with corn, can consume thousands of tons of carbon from the air. Using up such farmland with solar panels that could be multi-purposed in industrial and light industrial areas is counterintuitive for many. Similarly, residents are concerned about the precedent of other similar projects that have gone on active farmland. Such a development has the potential to decimate farmland’s productivity, especially after such a time when the solar panels are no longer operational, or relevant technology.
The aforementioned concerns, and many others, were brought before Benton Township’s planning and zoning committee at a meeting on Thursday February 8. Not a single voice from nearly 50 residents in attendance made a favorable comment for the Geronimo project. The attendees openly invited each other to attend the March 6 meeting to further voice their opposition to the Geronimo project and in favor of an ordinance limiting the installation of solar complexes to industrial spaces in the county.
“They (the county commissioners) should be representing residents, and not big business,” Hall said. “This is the reason we have zoning ordinances.”