The Riga Planning Commission grappled with setbacks for wind turbine towers at its regular monthly meeting last Monday night, but it is not the first time that setbacks have come under scrutiny by the commissioners as they have studied the possible impact of “wind farms” sprouting 485-foot-tall towers topped by turbines in both Riga Twp. (Please see related story in this issue)
The commissioners have been seeking all of the input that they can collect on the emerging wind energy industry as they struggle with the decision of whether to allow wind turbines in the township at all, or if they do, under what conditions. On the other hand, Ogden Township, another proposed site, has no zoning and consequently no restrictions.
The Riga Twp. Board, which will eventually need to approve or reject the wind turbine ordinance that the planning commission writes, recently acknowledged the complexity of the legal issue and granted the commissioners’ request for a one-year moratorium on a deadline in order to consider all of the angles of the legislation.
One of the biggest issues of any future ordinance relating to wind turbines is setback (the distance between the towers and the road and residences). At the most recent meeting, the commissioners had invited a speaker who lives near Ubly, Mich., in the Thumb area, where a wind farm has been in operation long enough to assess community reaction.
All of the members of the planning commission have made the trip to that area to see and hear the wind turbines in action. An additional field trip was arranged by the commission for interested citizens of Riga Twp. to experience the impact of the wind farm on the community first hand. Several residents took advantage of the offer and they, too, took the opportunity to state their impressions of the visit at the meeting.
The setback distance will have an important effect on two of the most commonly cited drawbacks to wind turbines: noise and flicker effect. Noise is self-explanatory. Flicker effect is the phenomenon that occurs during the minutes that the sun shines through the twirling blades of the windmill portion of the turbine and into a residence.
During the public comment section of the meeting, Eugene Champagne, who lives near Elkton, the site of Harvest Farm wind turbine project, addressed the commission. Champagne said that his two-acre parcel is within a triangle formed by wind turbines of varying distance from his house: they are, respectively, 1,450; 1,400; and 1,350 feet from his home with three more within half of a mile from his house.
“I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else in the State of Michigan,” Champagne said, speaking of “noise as loud as someone speaking outside your window,” and “shadows running around in your house,” referring to the flicker effect.
He said that not only were the noise and flickering recurring nuisances, but the twirling blades of the wind turbines also interfered with his television reception to the point where he sought redress from the wind energy company, which, he said assured him that all he needed was a new television. The company bought him a new television and dish but the flickering reception continues, Champagne said.
“My recommendation is, don’t put complaint resolution in the hands of the developer,” he said. “I can’t take John Deere [the manufacturer] and Michigan Wind [the developer] to court because I can’t afford it. That’s why the setback issue is so important.”
Planning commission chairman Reg Karg asked Champagne what he felt a sufficient setback distance would be. “We are looking for some guidelines,” he said.
“I’m hesitant to name anything specific,” Champagne said, “but I can say that 1,400 feet won’t do it.”
Karg thanked Champagne for his information. “It’s paramount that we hear from people who are experiencing what we are talking about,” he said. “Now, let’s get back to our setbacks.”
Karg asked attorney Michael Hormier, whom the commissioned has retained to sit in on meetings and advise the trustees regarding legal aspects of the wind turbine ordinance, what the general setbacks are for wind turbines currently in operation.
“Setbacks are usually driven by height and can vary section by section,” Hormier said. “We have a comparative table of setbacks from around the state that we can refer to.”
Commission vice chairman Kevon Martis said, “This is not something that we are going to negotiate with the developer. This is a matter of the health and safety of residents,” Martis said. “Lawful use aside, you can’t build skyscrapers here. It is better to err on the side of safety. An ordinance doesn’t have to be forever. It can be adjusted later.”
“This is an infant industry,” Karg said. “There is really very little usable, undisputed data, and I think we should err on the side of caution.”
Commissioner Dwight Gilliland told the board that there might be a big difference between what a participating landowner would find acceptable and what a non-participating landowner would feel to be adequate setback. Participating landowners are those who have signed leases for construction of wind turbines or who have agreed to a compensation package allowing for an agreed upon setback with the developer. A non-participating landowner is one who has no connection with the wind farm development at all.
The board discussed various setback options until Martis offered a proposition for specific distances.
“I’ve known for several months that I would be the guy to pick a number,” Martis said. “There are no meaningful studies, so I suggest half a mile for non-participating and a quarter mile for participating.”
“I can’t tell you if half a mile is exclusionary,” Hormier said, suggesting that the distance could be challenged legally.”
“Once they’re built, we’re done,” Martis said. “Why take a risk on an unknown? Setbacks of 2,640 [half of a mile], 1,320 [quarter of a mile], and 1,000 from roads and railways seem reasonable.” The board agreed that individual participating landowners could negotiate lesser setbacks.
Karg called for a vote on Martis’ motion and the distances were passed unanimously.
During the public comment session, the board heard from other audience members who had made the trip to evaluate the wind farms in the Ubly/Elkton area.
“They [wind turbines] weren’t very noisy and they are clean,” said Paul Wielfaert. “I came away with a more positive impression. If you live along 223, you get a heck of a lot more noise than you get from turbines.”
Bill Reed, also made the trip to check out the turbines first hand. He took a decibel meter with him to measure the sound of the wind turbines. He told the commissioners that the traffic passing on the road made more noise than the instrument was recording at the base of one of the wind turbines.
The planning commission will address the topic of the distance between wind turbines at the next meeting Monday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m.
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