Tuesday, March 6, the Eaton County Planning Commission met for a regular monthly meeting. However, the commissioner board chamber became standing room only as dozens of citizens came for public comment and support against DCA-3-18-2, which was “a comprehensive amendment to the Eaton County Land Development Code (Zoning Ordinance) to clarify the intent, update language, and improve comprehension.”
The articles coming under the amendment were Article 5, Definitions and Interpretations (section 5.3.19 S), Article 7, Land Development Requirements (sections 7.3.4 and 7.6.4), and Article 14, Specific Provisions and Requirements (to add section 14.39 for Solar Energy Systems).
Cutting through the jargon, the purpose of DCA-3-18-2 was to make room in the Land Development Code for solar energy developments, specifically that of Geronimo Energy, an energy company out of Minnesota attempting to develop 600 acres of farmland on the border of Benton and Oneida townships. The energy project has received significant opposition over the last year, initiating high attendance to township meetings in Benton Township, as well as citizen petitions.
For over an hour the planning commission heard public comment in opposition to DCA-3-18-2 and the Geronimo project. Citizens from both Benton and Oneida townships spoke, as well as residents from other areas of the county. “We shouldn’t be developing good farmland,” “Solar panels can go elsewhere,” “I wouldn’t want to look at those solar panels,” were all frequent comments. Scientific arguments were raised, real estate concerns brought forward, and Oneida’s own ordinance to limit such energy developments brought to the attention of the commission.
There was also a period of comment from persons in favor of DCA-3-18-2 and Geronimo energy. Two individuals representing Geronimo energy came forward to address a few of the concerns raised during the opposition period. Matt Zimmerman, an attorney representing Geronimo, and David Shiflett, a project manager with Geronimo, made cases for not only the Geronimo project specifically, but also for the language of DCA-3-18-2, citing it as one of the more restrictive amendments they’ve seen. Kat Webber, a resident of Oneida Township and employee of Ecoplexus Solar Solutions, also expressed her assurances that solar energy is safe, environmentally friendly, and beneficial for the future of clean energy.
After brief rebuttal periods from both sides, the commission moved to discuss action for DCA-3-18-2, whether to take it to the Eaton County Board of Commissioners, or to continue working on its language. The frustration arose less from the opposition to the Geronimo project itself, but that Brian Ross and Ben Tirrell specifically had spent a significant amount of time researching solar energy, how such developments influence the land, and how the Geronimo project could benefit the county.
“The lucrative per diem is not the reason people are involved in a citizen committee,” said Tirrell, noting that the members of the planning commission don’t have personal vested interest in the Geronimo project. “I do feel that this is a property rights issue… I unequivocally reject the argument that it’s a land preservation issue.”
Tirrell and Ross further insisted to the public that there was well educated and informed input and thought put into DCA-3-18-2, but ultimately the commission moved to table to send the DCA back to zoning subcommittee for a more comprehensive look, and postpone a decision on the DCA to June 5 meeting of planning commission.