York Township Promises Improved Community Communication On White Tail Project

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A number of people living nearby the proposed White Tail Solar project made it clear that they had not been properly informed by York Township before the previous public hearing, at May’s Planning Commission meeting. Chicago-based Ranger Power is proposing to build a utility-scale solar farm for DTE Energy on land in York and Augusta Townships, which if built, would provide 120 megawatts of clean energy to Southeast Michigan.

“This is not a done deal, but it is pressing forward because we’re getting good answers [from the applicant],” Planning Commission Chairman Cupka told the public from his seat at the dais, Monday evening. “I think we need to deliberate on this.”

Cupka promised the public to “get to the bottom” of why some property owners adjacent to the fields that may be turned into the solar farm weren’t notified before the public hearing on the project. York Township is looking into whether they need to redo the public hearing before proceeding. Ranger Power’s Sergio Trevino said that they were making a point of being in constant communication with the public and would continue to make every effort to do so. He said that Ranger's public outreach efforts have been based on who the township has reached out to.

Some of the members of the public were frustrated by the process, May 11, leading Cupka to ask the public to refrain from interrupting several times. There were a large number of people who spoke at the meeting who say they don’t feel listened to by the township, as the application process goes on.

“We didn’t ask for this. I don’t think they think of these people. This is about our life,” Sandy Kline, whose property is about in the middle of the project, said.

Kline said that she can’t see anything but hardship for neighboring homeowners like herself, expressing frustration that at a process that she thinks is spiraling beyond the control of neighbors like her. Kline is only confident only in her own property declining in value if the project proceeds.

“I don’t know who’s going to buy our house?” Kline asked.

The land is currently owned mainly by farmers, and who would own the land would depend on the individual, confidential deals that the solar developer is making. Some of the land would be leased, Trevino said, and some would eventually be bought by either Ranger or DTE, as part of a clause of their contract that would give them an option to purchase.

Solar projects like White Tail are framed by the industry to be net benefits for rural America, particularly for family farmers. Small scale farms have been shrinking for decades with, among other things, market forces, more and more constant inclement weather events because of climate change and the fact that it is getting harder and harder to make a living on a family farm. Solar projects like these are pitched as a way to keep farming sustainable by providing family farmers a steady supply of regular income, to augment their farming income, which of course is susceptible to the fluctuations of the market.

“It seems to me that all the big land owners know what is happening and the little guys are getting screwed,” Matthew Spence, who runs a neighboring day care center on Stony Creek Road, told the Planning Commission.

Matthew Spence, addressing the York Township Planning Commission, Monday.

Spence asked that someone reimburse neighboring landowners for an expected loss in property values, which Ranger denies will happen, or to be included in a number of other ways like through some sort of energy sharing scheme; an idea that Cupka said was beyond the power of the township. Ranger Power maintains that solar power plants do not affect the property value of neighboring parcels.

One misconception is that the panels would always stand at their maximum fifteen foot high extension. It is important to remember however that the panels move east to west with the sun every day, as they are programed to tilt to maximize efficiency. So whereas the panels could be as high as fifteen feet tall at sunrise or sunset, they will spend most of the time being shorter than that, as the panels level out to maximize solar gain.

This will depend on the topography of each parcel slightly, although that difference should be minimal as the land is flat enough that Ranger predicts that any grading for the site should be minimal. And by being double-sided, they would work even in winter, taking advantage of the reflection from snow to power the sun. Modern solar panels work even on cloudy days.

“We have a home that’s gonna have solar panels behind us, next to us and ahead of us. It’s not gonna be pretty,” Kline said.

York Township requires a vegetative screen of evergreen trees to block the view of the fifteen foot tall rows of solar panels from neighboring residences as part of the permission process. Ranger’s current plan, according to a pamphlet prepared for the Planning Commission, obtained by the Sun Times News, is to have a layer of foliage three rows deep.

Image Credit: Ranger Power.

The kind of evergreen trees has not yet been decided and likely wouldn’t for a while, as they won’t be ordered unless the project goes through. Ranger has also not yet made a decision on where the panels would be sourced. Most of the world’s solar panels are manufactured in Asia, although some are American-made.

If White Tail is approved, only about a fifth of the land would actually be covered in solar panels, according to the application. The rest would be planted with plants native to Michigan, to reduce erosion, encourage pollinating plants and lessen the amount of dust in the air, which negatively effects the efficiency of the photovoltaic panels.

“The project is intended to be as unobtrusive as possible,” Trevino said.

Image Credit: Ranger Power. This is a map they created of the current plan, which would cover 20.38% of the land with solar panels.

The project has an expected lifetime of twenty-five to thirty years, at which point the new land owners and township would be able to decide whether or not to replace the panels with new models, which are only ever going to get more and more efficient, or to decommission the site and revert it to farmland. The steel I-beams that would hold the rows of panels in place are designed to be removable. The cost for doing this would be covered either through a bond, or a letter of credit, according to Tim Stoepker, one of the attorneys representing Ranger Power, from the firm Dickinson-Wright.

Planning Commissioners sent Ranger back to the drawing board with further questions to be answered before there is a final yes or no vote. Planning Commissioner John Hargrove asked again for a study on whether the panels would interfere with electronic telecommunications, and a breakdown on the types and percentages of materials in the solar panels that would be installed. Trevino said that the specific composition of the panels is generally proprietary to the manufacturer, so even Ranger would not know beyond the general list of materials used.

The potential year-long construction timeline is also up for discussion. The current plan is to work form 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. during the summer, and 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. the rest of the year. The pile installation for the I-beams wouldn’t start before 8:00 a.m., which Ranger said they were willing to commit to in writing. Trevino clarified that the pile driving would not ever happen site-wide, as the piles would only be drilled in one location at a time, before moving on, which he suggested would minimize the noise nuisance.

Power from the panels would be transmitted to a transformer in Augusta Township, through underground wires. Ranger also claimed that the loudest that the sites equipment would be from the inverters, which would be at least 150 feet away from any property line, would be 45 decibels.

Ranger said they planned to leave the wires in the ground if it is decommissioned. Hargrove asked for their removal to be part of the decommissioning plan. 

This is not to say that there were no voices of support. But those voices came in the form of letters submitted for the record before the meeting, including a letter from the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, a group of environmentalists who encourage legislation to fight man made climate change from a conservative, free market approach.

Only about a third of the proposed solar farm would be in York Township, the rest would be in neighboring Augusta Township. Ranger Power will need approval from both townships planning commissions and boards of trustees before breaking ground.

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