Spaceport ban? Powell township residents ask board to change zoning
By DREYMA BERONJA
Journal Staff Writer
BIG BAY — Over 100 Big Bay residents are requesting a public hearing be held regarding a ban on spaceports in the township.
Resident Phil Bakken made a request for a public hearing on the proposed zoning ordinance petition, which was signed by 164 Powell Township citizens.The document was presented to the planning commission at its Sept. 20 meeting in an effort to “amend the township zoning ordinance to specifically prohibit spaceport (and) rocket launches in the township,” according to a Citizens for a Safe & Clean Lake Superior press release.
The plan for the facility, part of the Michigan Launch Initiative, was announced in 2020. The plan comes from the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association. The proposed site, which is located at Granot Loma, a privately owned parcel along Lake Superior — if built — would be part of a spaceport that would include a horizontal-launch site at downstate Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, with operations for both sites supported by a command-and-control center in Chippewa County.
CSCLS president Dennis Ferraro also attended the September planning commission meeting.
He said that while the existing ordinance does not permit spaceport launch sites in the township, “enacting a specific ordinance prohibition would make it clear that this type of destructive industrialization of our precious freshwater coast will never be tolerated.”
Ferraro reached out to the Conservation Law Center, an environmental law clinic at Indiana University’s Mauer School of Law, for a legal opinion on the matter.
Attorney Kacey Cook, who represents CSCLS, said in the letter that “Powell Township may lawfully and constitutionally pass Bakken’s petition as a necessary and legitimate exercise of its zoning power to protect the public health, safety and welfare of township residents and stave off the inevitable industrialization, environmental degradation and transformation of Powell Township’s unique character and way of life should a rocket launch site or spaceport facility be allowed.”
Cook said in her legal opinion, the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act provides the township the authority to pass the Bakken petition because “a rocket launch site is not an appropriate or lawful use of land anywhere in the township under the township’s zoning ordinance.”
She said Bakken’s petition also meets the six criteria for zoning amendments under the township’s zoning ordinance.
“Making clear that rocket launch sites are excluded would avert legal challenges that could be brought against the township for illegal ‘spot zoning’ and violating the public trust doctrine if such an industrial land use were allowed.”
However, at its September meeting, the Powell Townshp Planning Commission voted unanimously to reccomend that the township board refund the $650 fee Bakken paid for a public hearing, Ferraro said.
“This type of ‘punting’ the issue to the township is really an abdication of the planning commission’s responsibility and an insult to the overwhelming number of Powell Township citizens who rightfully deserve a hearing on their petition,” Ferraro said in the release. “We are confident that the facts and the law will, in the end, persuade Powell Township officials to act in the best interest of their citizens and all of the citizens of Marquette County in banning the proposed rocket launch plan.”
Ferraro said he expects a public hearing to be held sometime in November.
“So we expect on or before the next township board meeting, the township will probably advise the planning commission that they made a mistake,” he said. “And in fact they do have to schedule a public hearing…it depends on the timing of when the planning commission understands what they should do, what they should have done.”
Ferraro hopes that the nearly 200 citizens and property owners that have signed the petition will be heard by township officials.“We hope that they (the board) will honor the wishes of their constituents and pass this amendment. But they could deny it, it’s their prerogative. However, they are required by law and their ordinance to make findings of fact as to why they either granted it or denied it,” he said. “So, we hope that they’ll grant it, but if they deny it, then we hope that they stake in their findings of fact, why they’re denying it.”
Ferraro said residents reject the construction of a spaceport for several reasons.
“First of all, it’s absolutely not needed. There are multiple spaceports around the country that are underutilized, and there’s no need for it,” he said. “And it would be very destructive to the environment. We know from documents that we’ve obtained from the Freedom of Information Act from the county and also from the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association’s plan that this would involve almost 2,800 acres.”
Ferraro continued saying this would mean “clear cutting large swaths of habitat, filling in wetlands and constructing an industrial site right on the lakeshore.”
“The failure rate for these rockets is somewhere between 25-30%. We know from other failures that the landscape becomes extremely polluted,” Ferraro said.
He referenced Kodiak, Alaska, where rockets of the same class were launched and have failed “almost every time they launched them.” On one occasion, Ferraro said the failed rocket launches polluted the environment, which resulted in 203 metric tons of soil scraped away and decontaminated.
Other concerns Ferraro brings up are debris and pollution falling into Lake Superior and the disruption of the recreational economy in the area.
“We’ve got to realize that we are not separate (from nature). We are not separate from the trees, from the Earth (or) from the water,” Ferraro said. “We’re part of a system and unless we realize how connected we are to this environment and the need to protect it, we are going to be a lost species. It’s necessary for our survival.”
MAMA’s plan for the facility, part of the Michigan Launch Initiative, was announced in 2020. The Powell Township site, if built, would be part of the spaceport that would include a horizontal-launch site at the downstate Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, with operations for both sites supported by a command-and-control center in Chippewa County.
Mitch Walker, clerk for Powell Township, said the next regularly scheduled board meeting will be on Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. The next planning commission meeting will be Nov. 15 at 7 p.m.
The Mining Journal reached out to MAMA for comment but did not hear back before press deadline.
For more information regarding the Michigan Launch Initiative, visit co.marquette.mi.us/michigan_launch_initiative.php.
Dreyma Beronja can be reached at 906-228-2500 ext. 548. Their email address is email@example.com.