MUSKEGON COUNTY, MI — The company seeking approval for a 1,700-acre solar project north of Muskegon has sued township officials, claiming they are illegally dragging their feet in considering the project and have violated the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information acts.
Lakeside Solar LLC filed the lawsuit against White River Township in U.S. District Court Tuesday, Feb. 28.
It alleges nine counts against the township that primarily focus on a six-month moratorium on new solar energy projects that the township board approved in January.
The lawsuit alleges the moratorium was illegal and that the township planning commission violated the township’s own ordinance in not yet reviewing or holding a public hearing on the proposal. As a result, Lakeside Solar has been denied its constitutionally guaranteed due process, the lawsuit says.
The Lakeside Solar Project is a project of National Grid Renewables, of which Lakeside Solar is a subsidiary.
Solar panels placed on large swaths of property in the rural township north of Whitehall in Muskegon County could generate up to 200 megawatts of energy, according to National Grid Renewable’s website.
When contacted by MLive/The Muskegon Chronicle on Thursday, March 2, White River Township Attorney Clifford Bloom said he had not seen the lawsuit and was not prepared to comment on it.
Related: Large solar energy project proposed for northern Muskegon County topic of upcoming forum
The lawsuit notes that Lakeside Solar had been working on the project for three years. In December 2019, White River Township enacted a zoning ordinance governing solar energy systems that it developed in “collaboration” with Lakeside Solar, the lawsuit states.
But that spirit of “working together” fell apart after some township officials who were against the project sent out a public opinion survey that prompted organized opposition to begin to develop, the lawsuit says.
Lakeside Solar submitted a special land use request, required under the new solar ordinance, in November 2022 and the township at first indicated a public hearing on the request would be held n in January, the lawsuit states. But that hearing was canceled under the influence of “anti-solar citizen-opposition groups” and never rescheduled, the lawsuit states.
At the township board’s Dec. 13, 2022, meeting, Bloom told board members they could enact a 6-month moratorium on solar projects in order to work on amendments to the township’s solar ordinance, according to minutes of that meeting.
That moratorium, which is an amendment to the township’s zoning ordinance, was adopted in January.
Meanwhile, Lakeside Solar had been acquiring land agreements from multiple local property owners allowing for placement of solar panels, according to the lawsuit.
White River Township Supervisor Mike Cockerill is among those with property being considered for the project, The White Lake Beacon has reported. Cockerill has regularly recused himself from township discussions about the solar project, meeting minutes show.
To date, Lakeside Solar has spent more than $1.6 million on the project for such expenses as landowner payments, land and environmental surveys, permits and deposits for the right to connect its solar energy production into an electricity distribution network, according to the lawsuit.
Those don’t include legal fees related to the township’s “wrongful actions,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the township to remove the moratorium and promptly consider the special land use application for the solar project. It also seeks reimbursement of an unspecified amount of attorney’s fees, costs and damages.
Among the lawsuit’s claims against the township are:
- Adoption of an illegal moratorium. The lawsuit states that state law allows zoning moratoriums only in instances where there is a “direct threat” to the public, and that White River Township’s moratorium doesn’t reference any such threat.
- Violation of the Freedom of Information Act. The lawsuit states that Lakeside Solar sent a FOIA request to the township for documents pertaining to the project and the township’s response to it. However, the township didn’t provide a document planning commissioners referenced “cryptically” during a meeting to discuss the moratorium that was not made available to the public, the lawsuit claims. The lawsuit asks the court to order the township to turn over that document.
- Violation of the Open Meetings Act. The lawsuit claims public comment required under the state’s OMA was not allowed at a January planning commission work session when the moratorium was discussed.
- Unconstitutional taking of Lakeside Solar’s property interest. Lakeside Solar has been deprived the use of its property “interest” – specifically, leases it holds with “multiple property owners” – because of the township’s moratorium and its failure to consider the special land use request, the lawsuit states. The township has not reimbursed Lakeside for that “taking,” according to the lawsuit.
- Denial of due process. The failure to hold a public hearing on or otherwise consider Lakeside Solar’s application for a special use permit, adoption of the moratorium and the “taking” of its property were done without “due process of law” as guaranteed under the state and U.S. constitutions, the lawsuit alleges.
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