GOODLAND TOWNSHIP – Goodland Township, population 1,828, located between Imlay City and Michigan Amish country in the Thumb, is an unexpected player in the battle against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Clean Energy and Jobs Act, which strips townships of the power to regulate the installation of massive solar and wind farms throughout the state.
“It all started four or five years ago when a company called Orion Solar out of California came out here and started offering large farmers $1000 per acre per year for 25 years to lease their land for solar and the residents were not made aware of it,” said Goodland Township resident Mike Eckhardt to the Tribune.
Eckhardt indicated that the offer was too good to refuse for a group of 13 farmers in Goodland Township, who signed a lease with Orion. The company then submitted an application to the township to build a 1200-acre solar farm.
“The application was for phase one,” said Goodland resident Susan Jones to the Tribune. “We found leases with solar companies at the Registrar of Deeds covering well over 3000 acres.”
The Goodland Township Board of Trustees adopted an ordinance for solar and an ordinance for wind in 2018.
“We had no idea anyone wanted to do solar here until we started hearing rumors in late 2021,” said Jones. “We found those leases at the Registrar of Deeds and were concerned. We live right in the middle of it. Then we found out an application was filed.”
A group of concerned citizens started attending the monthly Planning Commission and Board of Trustee meetings. “When we started speaking up at the meetings, [Supervisor Ron] Cischke and the trustees were saying, ‘Where were you all a year ago when we passed these ordinances?’” said Michael Puzzuoli, another Goodland resident.
The local residents’ concerns include the location of the proposed site, its proximity to homes, and the setbacks that determined how close the panels could be installed to neighboring properties.
A further concern is environmental. “What was most concerning to me was the health effects,” said Jones. Jones went on to say, “We are on a well. These things are made in China without any standards and are known to contain lots of toxic chemicals. There are pictures all over the internet of whole fields of solar panels destroyed in hailstorms. Do those chemicals get into the ground water? This hasn’t been adequately studied.”
“I have family that will be surrounded on all four sides if this goes through,” Jones continued. “This is a family with 6 kids. My nephews won’t be able to go outside at their home in the country and play baseball anymore, or they could break a solar panel with their ball.”
“They want to change our beautiful rural setting into an industrial wasteland,” Jones said. “It’s very disheartening.”
These residents all told the Tribune that they do not want to interfere with the farmers’ land use rights. They just want to be able to influence where and how it is done so future generations are protected and their ability to continue to enjoy their rural lifestyle and environment is sustained.
“We never wanted to ban solar,” said Puzzuoli. “We just wanted some common-sense restrictions that would prevent them from being built right next to peoples’ homes. We wanted to make sure the panels were of high quality, as some of the cheap ones are known to leach toxic chemicals into the soil… We wanted a 500-foot setback… and we believe berms are a good idea around the property so the neighbors can’t see it.”
“In Imlay Township the board listened to the people and designated a large, swampy area that was already zoned for multipurpose industrial use – not next to any homes – for solar and wind,” said Eckhardt. “They did that because they listened to the people.”
“But Cischke and the township board want to put it on these farms that surround peoples’ homes because that’s the only way these farmers can make money on it,” Eckhardt added.
The township meetings have been contentious for most of the last two years as residents have lobbied the board and Supervisor Cischke to amend their ordinances to, in their view, protect the community and the majority of present and future residents.
Their efforts have succeeded in preventing the acceptance of any applications to develop solar, but the township has failed to amend the ordinances to address their concerns.
The three quoted residents and Cischke himself all described this conflict as being between the 13 farmers – who want to collect payments from Orion Solar instead of farming their land – and what the farmers call “damn 5-acre city people.”
Now that Whitmer has signed the Clean Energy and Jobs Act, the battle is still between residents, large solar companies and the farmers who want to collect payments for the solar farms. Once the law takes effect in the coming months, an unelected board in Lansing that has no incentive to consider the needs and desires of the majority of township residents, will attempt to override the restrictions set by local townships.
The Tribune spoke with Cischke, who has served as Goodland Township Supervisor for 56 years according to local residents.
He said that at this time, he plans to wait and see what the state does and how the lawsuits play out that citizens’ rights advocates are preparing to file against the state. “I talked to our attorney last week. We’re sitting tight until we know what the state’s gonna do. If it’s just a matter of making small adjustments to the setbacks or other details of the ordinances, that’s fine. That’s what we hope will happen.”
According to the residents the Tribune spoke to, that is not the approach they want. “The township has shown us again and again that they don’t care about the people, only the big farmers and the utilities.” Jones said. “They need to stand up to the state, pass the ordinance the people want, not the one that gives the farmers everything they want, and protect the people now.”
Cischke stated, “We want everyone to have a voice…[and] we encourage people to write us a letter… but the ones that stand up in the meeting and just talk and talk – we don’t pay much attention to them.”
Cischke’s current term for supervisor ends in 2024. It is unknown whether he will seek re-election.
The next Goodland Township board meeting is Tuesday, December 12, at 7:00pm. According to residents and Cischke, everyone expects a big crowd.