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SIDNEY TOWNSHIP — Some Montcalm County residents have been receiving inquiries from solar and wind companies regarding the possibility of local renewable energy projects.

Marvin Johnson of Winfield Township, standing, asks a Consumers Energy representative whether Consumers Energy has ever considered using ethanol to power electricity during a renewable energy community forum Thursday at Montcalm Community College. — DN Photo | Elisabeth Waldon

Ferris Township Treasurer Janice Jourdan is among those receiving phone calls.

“What would you say would be the probability of them really wanting to get involved in our local community?” Jourdan asked during a renewable energy community forum Thursday evening at Montcalm Community College.

“I would definitely open the door to let them come educate you and ask them for references and what other projects they have and visit other townships,”  responded Trent Hilding, a Vestaburg-based agricultural attorney.

“We don’t have much zoning in the area where we live, so I was just wondering whether we should be moving on this or just waiting to see if they knock again,” Jourdan said.

“I think at this point in time in Montcalm County it’s feeling the water to see what the temperature is,” Hilding noted.

Nearly 70 people were in attendance at the nearly standing-room-only forum hosted by the Montcalm County Planning Commission. The event was emceed by Planning Commission member John Johansen of Montcalm Township.

“It’s nice to see you all,” Johansen told the sizable audience. “We’re a little surprised at this turnout, but it’s great and we appreciate it.”

Agricultural law attorney Trent Hilding speaks about his experience with solar and wind projects during a community forum Thursday at Montcalm Community College as Harmony Nowlin of Consumers Energy listens. — DN Photo | Elisabeth Waldon

Hilding provided those in attendance with some free legal advice for anyone who has been or may be approached by a solar or wind company looking to utilize Montcalm County land.

“They’ve approached you, now what?” Hilding summarized. “It’s great if somebody approaches you, but there’s a lot of steps that come after that, the township, the zoning, and all those steps need to be followed.”

Solar and wind company representatives have different approaches to landowners. Hilding said solar companies send out a lot of mailers regarding land leasing, while wind companies are more orchestrated and organized as they need the approval of township boards for local projects.

Some of Hilding’s advice:

• Always negotiate: Some renewable energy companies are looking to lease land (a more flexible and temporary arrangement), while others are pursuing easements (a more permanent arrangement that will likely stay with the property even if the property is later sold). Hilding warned against any “high-pressure approach” to sign an agreement and recommended landowners always negotiate for what they want.

“If you don’t get an option to negotiate it, it’s probably not what you want to do,” he said. “You can negotiate whatever you want to make sure you’re protected.”

• Read the fine print: Hilding noted some agreements place restrictions on property use, such as farming, hunting, etc. He advised reading through all these details to make sure landowners understand their rights before signing anything.

• Consider local zoning: Hilding recommended property owners talk with their local township board officials to learn what, if any, ordinances exist for solar and wind projects.

Montcalm County Planning Commission Chairman S. Michael Scott of Howard City addresses the audience during a renewable energy community forum Thursday at Montcalm Community College. — DN Photo | Elisabeth Waldon

“You need to make sure you’re thinking through the zoning side of things and the lease,” Hilding said. “The large landowners can’t just gear up and make it happen, there’s going to be a lot of naysayers at local meetings. If you are in favor of these things, you need to make sure to do your homework and talk to people who have these projects in other townships.”

• How will you get paid?: Hilding noted some renewable energy projects start with several years of testing on the progeny, then actual construction and then actual operation. He emphasized that property owners should have in writing how they will be paid throughout all these different stages.

“Make sure you understand the payments and the schedule of how things are going to get paid,” he said. “Make sure you know how you’re compensated all the way through this thing.”

• Get everything in writing: “Make sure you do your research and do your homework,” Hilding summarized. “I mean, (the year) 2040, some of these things are futuristic plans that our kids and grandkids are going to be seeing.”

Montcalm County Planning Commission Chairman S. Michael Scott noted Eureka and Pine townships already have good wind energy ordinances created and Home Township is in the process of working on their own ordinance.

The Montcalm County Planning Commission will next meet at 3:30 p.m. April 15 on the third floor of the Montcalm County Administrative Building in Stanton. The meeting is open to the public and anyone interested in discussing solar and wind energy is welcome to attend.

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