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Published: Monday, 10/25/2004

Petitions are filed to topple rezoning

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BLISSFIELD, Mich.- Opponents of a newly approved industrial zone in Riga Township near Blissfield, Mich., may have succeeded in getting a referendum on a special-election ballot that could force a proposed ethanol plant to be built elsewhere, according to the township supervisor.

The group filed three petitions with 278 signatures on Wednesday with township Clerk Karlene Goetz.

Supervisor Robert Knoblauch said the group needed only 68 signatures to force the township to hold a special election Feb. 22. Ms. Goetz is still verifying the signatures, but because the group has 210 more than it needs, Mr. Knoblauch said it likely won't be a problem.

Two of the petitions call for overturning a Sept. 13 township board decision to rezone a site at Silberhorn and Cemetery roads from agricultural to heavy industrial, and an adjoining site from agricultural to light industrial.

A third petition calls for a rewording of the township's master plan to prevent the site from becoming an industrial park.

Officials at Great Lakes Ethanol LLC of Lenawee County had hoped to break ground next month on a $72 million plant that will produce 50 million gallons a year of ethanol, a bio-fuel made from corn that can be mixed with gasoline.

Many area farmers believe the plant will provide them another market with which to sell their corn and boost Riga Township's stagnant, one-dimensional economy.

The opponents - a group of about 20 people - say they are not against the plant, but are opposed to the proposed location.

"Our biggest complaint is that they're dropping an industrial zone right where the heaviest population is," said Trela Smith, a Riga resident.

"There are other sites where the population is less dense."

Some of the township's 1,470 residents live on Riga Highway, across from the proposed ethanol plant site.

Great Lakes officials said they've only heard rumors about the petition drive and haven't been contacted by Mr. Knoblauch about the special election.

"We can't comment on it yet because we haven't heard anything," said Sharon Knisel, the company's equity drive coordinator.

The company has raised about $14 million of the $25 million it needs to begin construction, she said.

Board Chairman Jeff Ehlert said his company is proceeding with the assumption the plant will be built at the Silberhorn Road location. Plans are being finalized for road improvements, railroad line improvements, and a track extension into the plant site, and with the building plans for the plant that will employ about 40 people.

Mr. Knoblauch said that if voters overturn the township's decision to OK the industrial zone location, Great Lakes could file suit. If the company wins, township residents would be liable for any penalties and damage fees, he said.

Ms. Smith said ethanol plant supporters are using that argument as a scare tactic to influence voters. Her group's research has turned up an argument that proves Great Lakes can't win.

"There has to be a demonstrated need for that facility to exist there," she said.

Some residents have complained about the $4,000 to $5,000 Mr. Knoblauch says it will cost the township to hold the special election. Sanda Andrews, a referendum supporter, has a different view.

"Some people think it is just awful that a person criticizes or disagrees with an action taken by our board. I think it's the American way," she said.



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