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Lawsuit over Stalled Solar Panel Project Reflects Growing Friction with Zoning Approval from Local Governments

Lakeside Solar, LLC, filed suit against White River Township, on February 28, 2023, in U.S. District Court, regarding a prospective solar panel project on Michigan’s west side.  For more than three years, Lakeside Solar has been developing this project over hundreds of acres in Muskegon County, which falls within the jurisdiction of White River Township.

Michigan is one of the few remaining Midwest states to require local approval for utility-scale renewable energy projects, rather than require approval at the state-level.  This can and has resulted in friction between local officials and the increasing number of proposed renewable energy projects in the state. As a result, the development of solar ordinances are becoming more and more significant.

With respect to Lakeside Solar, around 2019, it is reported to have initiated discussions with White River Township as to its investment in its proposed solar project.  At this time, the Township was developing a solar zoning ordinance, which was eventually enacted in December 2019.  Over the past three years, Lakeside Solar claims it has been acquiring land agreements from numerous landowners to install solar panels on the properties.  Lakeside Solar claims in its Complaint that the company worked to develop its project in accordance with the enacted 2019 solar ordinance.  By November 2022, Lakeside Solar applied for a special land use permit as required under the ordinance.  However, the township ended up enacting a 6-month moratorium this past January 2023, in order to work on amendments to its solar ordinance.

This moratorium acts as a temporary prohibition on approving licenses, approvals, etc., such as barring approval of Lakeside Solar’s special land use permit for its developing solar project. Lakeside Solar’s lawsuit alleges, among other things, that this moratorium is invalid and violates state laws because the Township based it on police power. Specifically, under Michigan law, while a local government may enact zoning regulations, it may not suspend a zoning ordinance or its procedural requirements by citing general police power.

The Michigan Zoning Enabling Act authorizes local municipalities to enact zoning ordinances or regulations while also specifying procedural requirements for these municipalities.  Courts have emphasized that local governments may not avoid such procedural requirements under the Zoning Enabling Act, by claiming its zoning ordinance valid pursuant to general police power. Lakeside Solar’s lawsuit further alleges that, unlike this case, where courts have permitted a moratorium, it is based on a direct threat to health, safety, and general welfare.  This lawsuit was recently filed and is ongoing therefore, no decision or judgment has yet been made by the U.S. District Court.

As mentioned, given that Michigan maintains approval for larger renewable energy projects at the local level, pushback or complicated requirements for multiple projects have already arose and are sure to occur again. As a landowner or company involved in the renewable energy business, it is important to be aware of requirements local governments are bound by, as well as your rights throughout the development of these solar projects and/or related agreements.  Attorneys at Dalton & Tomich are highly experienced in zoning matters, contact the number, (313) 859-6000, to speak with an attorney today.

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