From Horse Barn to Wellness Center, Part 11: Solar Zoning and Township Disputes

Reader Contribution by Adam D. Bearup and Hybrid Homes
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Photos by Adam D. Bearup

Follow the journey to remodel a horse barn into a commercial wellness center on a Midwestern property zoned for agriculture. This 12-part series recounts the considerations, pitfalls and ultimate successes of a green-building project with an ambitious scope to bring a defunct farm building new life as a natural health destination.

Task by task, the former horse barn was looking more and more like a Wellness Center. It was such a great feeling, after all of the leg work, to be closing in on the completion of the project. Enough time passed that the Township had its special meeting to allow ground-mounted solar arrays in its zoning ordinance, and that meant that we could finally get our solar array. We were on track for the grand opening!

I heard a phone ringing, and I quickly recognized the ring tone — it was my phone! I dug my phone out of my work pants’ cargo pocket and looked at the phone number on the screen to see who it was. I recognized the number.

Troubleshooting Solar in the Zoning Ordinance

“This is the zoning administrator; do you have a minute to talk?” Zoning administrators normally do not call builders unless there is an issue with zoning. I spent a considerable amount of time working with him and creating documents for him throughout this project, so maybe he thought that I was the person to call.

The zoning administrator said, “I received the paperwork for the solar array and, I will cut to the chase: I can’t approve it as it is written up.”

“Did you talk to the solar guy?” I asked. The zoning administrator wanted to discuss the matter with me to see whether we could create a solution before we upset anyone. I appreciated that. He told me that there was a problem with the wording in the zoning ordinance. We had translated the wording differently than he had intended. A normal person’s response to a situation like this might not be so wonderful.

Had I laughed and hung up, the deal would have caved in and there would be a tougher road ahead to get the solar array. I chose a different path, one forged from experience I simply asked him, “What is your translation of the wording?”

It turned out that what was needed wasn’t far off from what we had hoped to get. Together, we devised a plan as close to a conflict-free resolution as possible. Originally, we wanted to have the solar array in three equally sized arrays, all sitting in a certain spot near to the Wellness Center. The zoning administrator said that the ordinance only allowed one long continuous array and that the array had to sit farther out into the field. Ultimately, the discussion was non-heated and ended with everyone happy.

Troubleshooting Pre- and Post-Remodel Square Footage

 I was starting to feel good about getting the solar array approved and I thanked the zoning administrator. Before I could hang up, he stopped me and said, “The solar array was only part of the reason why I called.”

“Oh great,” I thought. “Here we go.” The zoning administrator went on to tell me that while he was reviewing the solar array documents, he noticed that there was an addition built on to the front of the barn. He had my full attention at that point, because a zoning violation is really the only reason why a zoning administrator would call a builder directly.

He started to go on and on about the original paperwork that was submitted to the Township, paperwork that was crafted before I was involved in the project. We were in violation!

I thought that I had read every word of every document that was involved in this process. He said that the paperwork showed the remodel would maintain the original footprint of the existing horse barn — and that the square footage then was smaller than the one we had now, after all the work we did.

I didn’t know how to respond, so I didn’t. I let him continue. “I think that this can be handled simply by changing the wording in the approved paperwork to include the larger footprint,” he offered.

“Well,” I replied, “we will certainly assist you in any way possible and do not want to cause any friction whatsoever in finding a solution to this.”

“Can you verify all of the information again and get me the square footages of all of the buildings so that I can make sure that we are in line with the original paperwork?” What he would need was a simple amendment that needs to be signed by the Township Board. Township meetings occur once per month, so I was relieved to try to get it into the agenda the following week. We both agreed to talk before the meeting and then I hung.

“Now, don’t get upset,” is what I decided to lead with when I called the owners.  You would think that I would have learned by that point that I should never start a conversation saying that. Instantly, I had to move the phone away from my ear because the words were getting colorful.

The owners were very noticeably upset. I didn’t blame them, considering all that we have been through. So, I did what I got used to doing on this project and just listened. I finally got to say, “Before you do all of that, would you please wait until after the Township meeting?” They agreed to not take action until after.

Disputing Construction Issues at a Township Meeting

I got everything worked out to stay in town the night of the Township meeting. But when I got there, our matter was not on the agenda. I patiently waited until the public comment period. I raised my hand to speak and was granted permission, but only after a candidate running for State Representative had time to speak. Forty-five minutes later, I got to stand up and speak at the podium.

I let the Township Board know that I was there to represent our matter, one not on the agenda. The Board decided to push the decision out to a meeting in about three weeks. I left without an answer from the Township and had to let the owners know that we didn’t get anywhere at the meeting. They asked me if I should have done or said more at the meeting. I had done what I went there to do: make our presence known.

Read the full series of how this horse barn transformed into a wellness center.

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project MichiganAdam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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