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Conway Township rallies against solar energy proposal

Over 200 people attended the township planning commission meeting to discuss a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that would allow for the expansion of solar power in Conway Township. 

According to a poll by Michigan State University, over 90% of Michiganders support solar energy, and a mere 3% are strongly opposed. This data, however, does not appear to be emblematic of Conway Township, where an overwhelming majority of speakers opposed the expansion of solar power.

Of the 40 speakers, only five showed support for the proposal.  The few who spoke in support of solar energy initiatives were booed, heckled, and interrupted by members of an unruly audience. In contrast, members of the audience started yelling in outrage when the commission told one speaker from the coalition against solar energy that her three minutes of speaking time had expired.

Multiple landowners in Conway Township have been working with Ranger Power toward the installation of solar panels in the area. As a result, the Conway Township Planning Commission has been evaluating its zoning ordinance, and a new amendment has been drafted.

Conway Township zoning map (2018). Green areas represent agricultural/residential, yellow is strictly residential areas.

Chief concerns presented by those opposed were the adverse effects such projects might have on public health, natural resources, and property valuations. Frequently cited concerns included the beliefs that solar panels could result in fire, flooding, infrastructure damage, toxins in soil or well water,  and the potential damage to roads from construction vehicles.

Multiple speakers spoke to their belief that Ranger Power– the Chicago-based renewable energy development company facilitating the proposal– is a monopolistic, political entity. Richard Allen of neighboring Antrim Township called it ironic “that a company promoting solar energy operates in darkness.”

And yet, the audience did not appear interested in clarification on the project from the source: the announcement that affiliates of Ranger Power would be hosting a presentation on the nature of solar energy was met with audible discontent from members of the audience.

Many expressed dismay, fearing that such technological advancements would only serve to ruin the “rural character and charm” of the community. Sarah Porter, the spokesperson for the coalition of residents opposed to the amendment, pointed out that Conway Township has been designated as a commuter township: 93% of residents drive an average of 40 minutes to work. Porter emphasized that the residents of Conway Township “chose their property and the agricultural aesthetics over their time to commute and increased vehicle cost to live in an agricultural/residential community.”

But there is much more to an agricultural community than mere aesthetics. Brendan Miller spoke on behalf of the Land of Liberty coalition, representing the five landowners who wish to install solar panels on their property. 

“Everybody likes to look at farmland, but not many people realize what it is to farm,” Miller explained. “The struggles– trying to figure out how to make ends meet, the struggles of figuring out whether you can continue doing something your family’s done for decades– that’s what’s at risk.”

Miller concluded that to prevent farmers from diversifying their income is to ensure that small farmers will be driven out of business.

Mike Buza, Chair of the Michigan Sierra Club, noted that the fossil fuel industry is very much responsible for peddling and perpetuating  falsehoods about renewable energy sources.   While it might be strange to consider the connection between rural agriculture and oil conglomerates, Buza explained that approximately 8% of all farmland is used to grow corn. Corn yields ethanol, which is then used to supplement gasoline for fuel. As a result, Buza says billions of dollars have been allocated toward the distribution of misinformation about sustainable practices. 

To counter that narrative, Ranger Power will be hosting a presentation on solar energy– called Sun101– on Thursday, December 15th. More information on the research behind solar energy, can be found by visiting sun101.org. 

Meanwhile, the commission postponed action on the zoning amendment until their January meeting.

Additional information on the proposed zoning ordinance amendment can be found on the Conway Township website.

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