ALPINE TOWNSHIP – Farmers facing pressure to lease their land to competing wind energy companies are hearing a stern message: Get a lawyer.
“I want people to know what they’re getting into,” a Michigan State University professor of agriculture told more than 100 people Tuesday who turned out for a presentation by a farmers’ advocacy group.
“I’m not anti-wind,” David Schweikhardt, a lawyer and expert on wind energy, told farmers and officials from at least six townships. “I’m anti-ignorance.”
“I’ve heard about some excellent leases. I’ve also heard horror stories.”
Hundreds of landowners in The Ridge, an area of farmland on the border of Kent and Ottawa counties, are being courted by two wind turbine companies, one from Spain and the other in northern Michigan.
They want to erect dozens of wind turbines up to 475 feet tall and need leases of 25 years to 100 years in order to realize their investments, Schweikhardt said.
Iberdrola Renewables, of Spain, and Heritage Sustainable Energy, of Traverse City, want to capitalize on an emerging wind energy market the federal government has said could provide one-fifth of the nation’s electricity by 2030.
Iberdrola plans to erect three 200-foot towers in Sparta, Chester and Casnovia townships by mid-July. The $25,000 towers will measure the potential for wind generation, said Dan Litchfield, a business developer for Iberdrola.
He said the 2-megawatt turbines themselves, which cost roughly $4 million apiece, are two to three years off. Litchfield would not discuss Iberdrola’s lease holdings. Heritage already has rights to 4,000 acres, project manager Rick Wilson said.
But landowners should be careful about the lease deals, Schweikhardt and Alpine Township attorney Cliff Bloom told farmers and officials from Alpine, Sparta, Chester, Pierson, Wright and Oceana townships.
“You’re essentially giving away a property right forever,” said Bloom, after Schweikhardt finished a 30-minute presentation on the legal pitfalls landowners face negotiating wind leases.
Cathy Schaefer, of Sparta, who owns 40 acres in Chester Township, already signed a lease with Heritage. She said the agent came to her property and she and her husband signed the lease the same day.
“We signed a contract,” Schaefer, 56, said during a public comment period. “We didn’t know about no lawyer. We put our faith in your representative.
“When he called, I said, ‘Who else signed up?’ He rattled off 14 other farmers.”
Schweikhardt said he would not advise anyone else to proceed without counsel.
Landowner and presentation organizer Kirk Briggs, the president of Ridge Economic Agricultural Partners, is waiting to jump into a Heritage lease offer.
“They were offering a $10,000 bonus to sign and $15,000 to $20,000 per tower,” he said. There also was a $1,500 bonus to sign promptly. “Some people jumped on it.”
Heritage officials disputed those terms, saying the $10,000 came when the first tower went up and that turbine royalties varied with project success. A signing bonus also varied with the size and potential of each property.
Alpine Township Trustee Sharon Steffens, who helped run the meeting, said the goal was to educate farmers about the legal consequences of the wind leases.
Don Doyle, a Sparta Township planning commissioner who is working on a zoning ordinance to accommodate wind energy, said his message to farmers is simple.
“We’re advising them to get a lawyer.”
Posted by Joe Snapper
The Grand Rapids Press
25 June 2008
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