LUDINGTON – After months of study, investigation and debate, the Mason County Planning Commission gave the green light Thursday to the proposed $232 million Lake Winds Energy Park in Riverton and Summit townships.
The unanimous vote on a special use permit crafted out of the county’s zoning ordinance especially amended for the 56-turbine project was hailed by supporters who are land owners among the 309 parcels in the wind park or were supportive of the economic development benefits of jobs and tax base for Mason County.
But opponents – many of them landowners in the two townships not compensated by the Consumers land leases – chastised planning commissioners for making a decision to satisfy the public utility. One critic said Lake Winds in the two southern townships will “drastically alter the future of Mason County.”
Consumers Energy officials at the planning commission meeting at West Shore Community College east of Ludington applauded the vote but were noncommittal on the Jackson-based utility’s next move.
“We will be evaluating the (special use) permit and the conditions to determine our next steps,” said Dennis Marvin, communications director for Consumers Energy’s new generation department. The planning commission resolution with all the restrictions and demands of the utility was 36 pages long.
“For everyone involved, we are very pleased with the decision made tonight,” Marvin said. The company is expected to make a formal statement Friday morning.
“It’s been a long journey,” Planning Commission Chairman Doug Robidoux said after the 6-0 vote. Commissioner Ralph Lundberg did not participate in the deliberations or the vote because he has a lease with Consumers for use of his own land for the wind farm, county officials said.
During the public comment portion of the meeting after the vote, opponent Evelyn Bergaila of Riverton Township blasted commissioners for their action allowing the 56 utility-grade wind turbines that are 312 feet tall at the turbine hub.
“There was a shocking lack of discussion about issues that are important to us without leases,” Bergaila said. “Everything seemed to be about how to grease the skids for Consumers. I don’t think you served us well in this community in terms of our health and safety. I feel you failed us.”
Other proponents thanked the planning commissioners for their “political courage” and bringing Mason County “into the future.” Many of the supporters outside of the two affected townships are happy with economic impact studies showing the project will create 150 jobs during peak construction times and eight to 12 full-time jobs during operations of the 100-megawatt wind farm that can produce enough power for 25,000 homes.
The total direct and indirect economic benefit to Mason County residents and businesses will be $33 million, a company study concluded. In addition, over the next 20 years, the taxing units of the county, the townships and schools will receive a combined $29 million, the economic study showed.
Those owning the 309 parcels in the townships have leases that will pay them for basic annual easements, a flat fee for those with the actual 56 towers on their land and annual payments based on the amount of power the project produces and the size and location of each parcel. The specific economics of the lease payments are not known, but a Summit Township official has described them as “lucrative.”
“I’m very happy,” Riverton Township retired farmer George Sadler said during a break in the planning commission meeting. Sporting a “we support on-shore wind” T-shirt and a Lake Winds ball cap, Sadler said land negotiations with Consumers went well, and the project will allow his family’s 175 acres to be farmed for corn and soybeans.
“There is no reason for the (special use) permit to be denied,” Sadler told The Chronicle, pointing to the utility’s good-neighbor approach with the Ludington Pumped Storage Facility – now in line for an $800 million upgrade after 50 years of operation. “Consumers has agreed to everything they were asked. This will mean a lot to the community when the wind farm gets on the tax roll.”
Mason County Commissioner Bob Erickson of Ludington told the audience that he is working with Consumers to provide a $2 million pot of money to be distributed to non-lease holder land owners in the two townships. He said he hopes to put a committee together of opponents and proponents to work out a formula to financially assist township property owners outside of the project area.
But opponents wanted the planning commission to address issues such as concern about the wind farm harming property values in the township for those owners outside the project area. Opponents asked Consumers and Mason County to take six months to further study the wind park plan, which critics say needs longer setbacks from dwellings and property lines and more restrictive noise provisions.
Dee Bennett of Riverton Township asked the planners why they didn’t require the company to guarantee land values going forward. If the company said land values would not be affected, they should put their money where their study was, she said.
“You made all kinds of concessions for Consumers. Why wouldn’t you do that for us?” she asked the planners.
The national Citizens Alliance for Responsible Renewable Energy was involved in the debate on behalf of opponents. The group’s Michigan attorney told the planning commission that the county’s approval of the special use permit violated the county’s zoning ordinance and site plan approval process. He indicated the group would consider future legal action.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding