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Elmwood substation plan brings threat

Neighbors of a proposed electrical substation are threatening the Elmwood Township trustee who plans to sell 10 acres to Wolverine Power Cooperative adjacent to a large windmill north of M-72.

“Our goal is to hold you personally and financially
responsible for our hardship and we will pursue this relentlessly.”
– Anonymous letter sent to Terry and Kathy Lautner

But trustee Terry Lautner said he has nothing to hide, and abstained Tuesday night from voting on a township effort to slow down construction of the substation while a township attorney reviews – for the second time – the Elmwood Zoning Ordinance to assure compliance.

The ordinance allows “essential services” in all zoning districts, and zoning administrator Donald Witkowski in August issued an opinion that would allow the substation as a “use by right” without a review by the township Zoning Board of Review. The township attorney apparently signed off on Witkowski’s interpretation.

Complicating the issue: Lautner is a long-time member of the board of directors for Cherryland Electric Cooperative, and a past director with Wolverine Power Cooperative. Cherryland, Wolverine and Traverse City Light and Power are combining efforts to build the substation, which the companies say is needed to provide more reliable electrical service to growing Leelanau County.

A site in Garfield Township off Gray Road was originally sought for the substation. However, at a May 8 Planning Commission meeting neighbors complained and planning commissioners sought detailed information about alternative sites before acting.

Neighbors of the site in Leelanau County are also complaining – and threatening.

In an anonymous letter addressed “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Lautner,” the Lautners were told by “concerned neighbors” that “our goal is to hold you personally and financially responsible for our hardship and we will pursue this relentlessly. We will expose this to the media, newspapers, television, etc.” A story on the substation appeared in the Wednesday edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

The “neighbors” wrote that the substation would lower adjoining property values. “This scar is the legacy Terry and Kathy Lautner will leave their family,” it continued.

Concerns were also raised during public comment at the monthly meeting.

“I believe one of your board members has a lot to gain from this,” said Mason Argue, who is developing the Bahia Vista subdivision near the proposed site.

“Why can’t they just expand the (substations) they have rather than put one next to my lot?” asked Josephine Bargiel.

Other nearby residents brought up health concerns. One said he had grown accustomed to the “whoosh” sound of the Light & Power windmill just off M-72, but did not want to hear a constant “humming” from the substation.

Supervisor Derith Smith questioned why cooperative officials did not notify neighbors, as they had promised her they would in August. “I got phone calls all weekend … the neighbors didn’t know about it.”

She remained unconvinced that the substation could be built without township approval. “I would not go so far as to say it is clear,” she said. “The attorney reviewed it given some of the facts.”

And Smith cautioned Lautner when he sought to discuss the issue, asking what role he was representing – that as Cherryland cooperative director, township trustee, or landowner.

“If I was you, Terry, I’d stay out of this …,” she said.

Trustee Jeff Howell at one point suggested the township ask the township attorney to pursue a court injunction to stop the project.

Lautner, after stating that he would abstain from any decisions, sought to explain his role, and to defend the project.

Lautner said the substation is needed to create a more reliable power grid serving Leelanau County, pointing to a widespread, four-hour blackout occurring last year. “Had the substation been in place, all of Leelanau County would have been out for five minutes,” he said.

The substation needed to be placed between power lines owned by Cherryland Electric and Consumers Power running north and south across M-72.

Also, he added, the substation will generate property tax revenue with $4 million in personal property value.

Reacting to a concern that the project had been pursued in “secret,” as stated by a resident, he read from minutes of the August meeting of the township Planning Commission that included a report from Elmwood planner Bill Swanson on the substation. The minutes, however, did not indicate the exact location of the substation and did not mention Lautner’s involvement.

In a letter dated Aug. 2 to zoning administrator Witkowski, Wolverine land management supervisor Joe Hughes indicated a willingness to cooperate with the township in developing a site screening plan to “help buffer the substation from adjacent properties.”

Neighbors, however, say they have already been left out of the loop.

“We became aware just this past Friday the project was in the planning,” wrote Argue in a letter to the township. “As to date, the surrounding property owners have not received any formal notification of these plans from the township or Wolverine Power. We are disappointed (our) health, well being and property values were not considered.”

A meeting between nearby property owners of the project and Wolverine was scheduled to be held yesterday.

Leelanau Enterprise

18 November 2007