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Shifting winds buffet parts of southeast Michigan

BLISSFIELD, Mich. – Fascinating.

That may not the best word for me to describe what’s going on in southeastern Lenawee County. But, in the big picture, I can’t help but be fascinated by the controversy over erecting as many as 200 commercial-scale wind turbines in Riga, Ogden, Palmyra, and Fairfield townships.

It goes beyond the traditional Not-In-My-Backyard, or NIMBY, issue. It pits old against new, a traditional and revered way of life – a sense of home, if you will – against the collective needs of energy independence, the war on terrorism, national security, climate change, oil imports, the value of the American dollar, and countless other issues.

Win or lose, developers already have torn up the psyche of a rural, idyllic landscape like bulldozers moving earth. Neighbors who largely kept to themselves are now pitted against or allied with one another, fighting for their sacred property rights or their equally sacred rights to earn cash, especially in these tough economic times.

Short-term interests vs. long-term ramifications. One side crying foul; the other accusing it of overreacting. Is it a golden opportunity or a sucker bet?

The answers remain elusive as ever.

One thing that’s fascinated me about wind turbines is how some people can look at them and get a rush of patriotism while others have the hairs on the back of their necks stand up.

Reasonable people want cleaner energy, even if it’s just more responsible management of a waste byproduct instead of pollution.

So now wind and solar – two of the seemingly cleanest forms of energy – pick up momentum in the marketplace and we wonder: Were we careful what we wished for?

How much is too much?

What developers propose are hardly machines Norman Rockwell envisioned for the countryside. At 493 feet tall, they would be 80 feet taller than downtown Toledo’s highest building.

Many places don’t have ordinances regulating their size and placement because, first, this is a rapidly developing industry and, second, country folk are generally loathe to land-use regulations. And while tons of research is being compiled, the reality is that wind power – especially on the scale it’s now fathomed – is still a fledgling concept. A grand experiment.

So a technology that appears to be clean at face value gets the kind of scrutiny that coal-fired power plants and nuclear plants did when they were sited decades ago, except that instead of sulfur dioxide, smog, mercury, and radioactive waste, the skeptics are focusing on more nebulous forms of pollution – noise and light pollution.

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. America needs a more diversified mix of energy sources, especially cleaner ones. But four rural townships are hardly going to turn things around. Residents there and in other parts of the country have every right to protect their quality of life as they see fit.

Emotions have run high, but the refreshing part of this story has been the democracy in action.

More than 500 people showed up when Riga Township, the pace-setter, took a step toward resolving this particular skirmish on July 6 when its township board enacted an ordinance that wind developers find too restrictive. Gatherings of 200 or more were common at several gatherings before that.

Not bad considering it’s a rural area and people have to drive for miles, sometimes sitting for hours.

The passage of Riga Township’s ordinance was followed with a notice of intent for a voter referendum that was filed with the township clerk’s office on Thursday. If supporters gather enough signatures to get the issue on the Nov. 8 ballot, voters could repeal the ordinance and repave the way for wind developers.

Before that, though, they’ll decide on Aug. 2 whether to recall Riga Township Supervisor Jeferee Simon, Ogden Township Supervisor James Goetz, and Ogden Township Clerk Phyllis Gentz on conflict-of-interest allegations related to the proposed wind-power projects.