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Huron County windmill park is ready to break ground  

"Huron County: We've got the breeze." You might see that saying, or something similar, on a T-shirt next summer.

Noble Environmental Power plans to put up 32 wind turbines in Bingham Township in the spring, and the $75 million project is expected to bring tons of tourists to the Thumb.

A groundbreaking ceremony is planned for 11:30 a.m. Friday at a construction site on East Atwater Road.

For the time being, Bingham Township will be the only place in Michigan to see so many 125-foot-long blades, sitting on 263-foot tall towers.

The company is erecting the state’s first commercial wind farm, to be called Noble Thumb Windpark, on 4,700 acres of farmland in the township.

It will be the third commercial windmill site in the state – two windmills are at the Mackinaw Bridge and one is in Traverse City.

"I think it’s going to be awesome for the area," said Jeanette Hagen, whose 600-acre farm will sport four of the Bingham Township turbines.

"We’ll have so many people just driving up. I think it’s going to double summer traffic. People will make a weekend out of it."

Hagen, 42, said she expects to see stores selling T-shirts to tourists soon after the first towers go up in the spring, lifted onto concrete pads by cranes. Gravel access roads already are under construction; the park is expected to be operational by mid-2006.

Hagen said she might print up some T-shirts herself and sell them out of her garage.

What will they say? Maybe "Huron County: We’ve got the breeze," said Hagen, who does accounting and office work for Noble.

Besides tourism, the turbines will spin off cash for Hagen, other local farmers and the community at large, supporters say.

About 50 farmers have signed easements to locate windmills on their land, said Peter Mastic, managing director for Noble Environmental Power, a Connecticut company with an office in Bad Axe.

Hagen said her family expects to take in $8,000 to $10,000 a year per turbine. They’ll still be able to farm the land around the turbine pads, which will be about 16 feet in diameter.

Noble already has signed a contract with Consumers Energy for renewable energy from the windmills. Each of the 32 General Electric turbines can generate up to 1.5 megawatts of energy. That’s enough to power 16,000 homes; Huron County has about 20,000.

Noble plans to hire 200 workers to build the park, including local contractors, Mastic said. The park also will create about 10 permanent local jobs for operations, maintenance and office duties.

Mastic said Noble’s first Michigan wind park – it has seven projects in New York state – could grow to 200 windmills in the future, spanning a 40-mile ridge that runs from Ubly to Carsonville, representing a total investment of $500 million or more.

But not everyone is jazzed about the windmills.

A local group called Residents for Sound Economics and Planning gathered more than 1,800 signatures on a petition earlier this year, looking for "fairer zoning" for the windmills.

They wanted the towers located farther from homes and other property lines than a current county ordinance allows, due to concerns over noise and that the turbine locations will restrict future growth.
The petitions were ruled "inadequate" by the county clerk in early November. Noble is now trying to reach out to residents who signed the forms to quell any concerns, Mastic said.

Dan Guza, a member of Residents for Sound Economics and Planning, said his group still wants the zoning ordinance changed.

Guza’s group has gone to court to reinstate the petitions, force a countywide vote on the zoning ordinance and stop construction. A hearing in Huron County Circuit Court is scheduled for Dec. 7.

"Our issue’s not with Noble, it never has been," Guza said. "It’s with zoning."

Stephen J. Allen, Huron County corporation counsel, said he doesn’t think the case has much merit.

"We don’t lightly discard 1,800 citizens who sign a petition," but the documents weren’t clear, Allen said. The petitions asked for a review of the zoning ordinance rather than a countywide vote.

– Jeff Kart covers the environment and politics for The Times. He can be reached at 894-9639 or by e-mail at jkart@bc-times.com


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