Lowell Twp Board Recap: Solar Energy Systems Discussed

At its regular July meeting last night, the Lowell Charter Township Board met for nearly an hour to consider four pieces of business. Of these, a proposed ordinance to regulate solar energy systems garnered the most discussion.

The meeting was attended by all board members except Trustee Steve Vander Ziel and Treasurer Ronda Benedict who had excused absences.

Expansion of Wall Sign Ordinance

Dave Simmonds, chair of the Lowell Charter Township Planning Commission, was also present to discuss two agenda items.

The first was an amendment to expand the use of wall signs on commercial buildings. Currently, businesses can only put a wall sign on the side of the business fronting a roadway. Apparently, some companies would like to also put signs on other sides of their business as well.

“It’s been a conversation between some business owners and the township,” Simmonds said.

The Planning Commission’s recommendation was to amend the ordinance to allow wall signs of up to 24 square feet on all sides of the building. No more than 500 square feet of total signage could be affixed to the walls.

The Lowell Township Board voted unanimously to approve the first reading of the amendment. It will be returned to the board for a second reading and adoption at a future meeting.

Requirements for Solar Energy Systems

Fire Chief Shannon Witherell and Planning Commission Chair Dave Simmonds discuss an ordinance with board members.

Also on first reading was an ordinance to regulate the installation of solar panels.

“The Planning Commission felt it was time for us to create an ordinance related to solar energy systems,” Simmonds explained.

Under the proposed ordinance, roof and wall-mounted solar panels for private use would be allowed in all districts. Roof-mounted solar panels could not exceed a height of five feet off the roofline while wall-mounted panels could not exceed the height of the building. Wall-mounted panels also could not be placed on the side of a house fronting a private or public road.

Ground-mounted solar panels would not be allowed in some residential districts and would need to meet setback requirements and not exceed coverage limits that vary by district. Ground-mounted units could not exceed 10 feet in height.

For solar energy farms, Simmonds said those would only be allowed in the floodplain running from the Riverfront Park west to the township boundary.

“How did you pick that area?” asked Trustee William Thompson.

“Low residential density,” Simmonds responded.

Transmission lines would need to be buried, and solar panels for these farms could not exceed 14 feet in height. The Planning Commission would need to issue a special land use permit before any solar farm could be developed. Other requirements would include security fencing and the establishment of an escrow fund to pay for decommissioning expenses, if needed.

“What we are trying to do is protect the neighbors,” Simmonds said.

Fire Chief Shannon Witherell was present at the meeting, and Thompson asked if he had any thoughts. Witherell had several concerns, particularly with what sort of battery storage would be allowed.

“Alternative energies are a hot topic for us right now because [batteries] take copious amounts of water to put out when they start burning,” he said. He noted that in some cases, batteries have been known to reignite even hours after a fire has been extinguished. There is also an issue with hydrogen leaks from batteries that could pose a hazard if residents store them in poorly ventilated basements.

Witherell also worried about the weight of solar panels on older roofs since the ordinance did not seem to limit how many could be installed. He also questioned having transmission lines buried underground in the floodplain.

Supervisor Jerry Hale said in his research, he had found at least two solar energy farms that were built in floodplains in California. He also noted that, legally, the township has to allow the use somewhere, adding: “We made it as hard as we could.”

“I don’t want to be in an aluminum boat rescuing someone in the water in a solar farm,” Witherell said.

Ultimately, the township board and Simmonds agreed to return the ordinance to the Planning Commission for further review and to add provisions about batteries and energy storage.

Fire Authority Agreement Updated

Witherell then reviewed changes to the joint fire and emergency services agreement which created the Lowell Area Fire and Emergency Services Authority in 2008. The authority oversees the Lowell Area Fire Department which is funded by Lowell Charter Township, City of Lowell and Vergennes Township.

The latest update to the agreement removes language saying the fire department cannot bill for services. All three municipalities have passed cost recovery ordinances to allow the department to bill for services when responding to certain calls, such as the clean-up of hazardous materials. Therefore, the language pertaining to department billing was deemed outdated.

Other changes were said to be relatively minor and included the addition of “legalese” and changing when the fire chief’s annual review can occur.

The restated joint agreement was approved unanimously by the Lowell Township Board.

Other Meeting Activity

Other activity from the meeting included the following:

  • Unanimous approval of the second reading and adoption of an ordinance to rezone 11969 60th Street to light industrial.
  • Fire department update from Witherell that included a preview of upcoming staffing changes. The department may stagger shifts to ensure better coverage throughout the day, and Witherell said that at some point, there may be a proposal to add quarters – comprising of two bedrooms and a bathroom – to the fire station to allow for 24/7 staffing.

The meeting adjourned at 7:55pm. The next regular meeting of the Lowell Charter Township Board will be at 7pm on Monday, August 15, in the Lowell Township Hall.

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