“It’s friends, neighbors and even families against each other. It’s just too bad.”
MERRITT TWP. — A proposed $250 million wind farm project scattered through three counties is tearing one small Bay County farming community apart.
“It’s neighbor against neighbor, some family against family,” said Dave Schabel, Merritt Township supervisor.
“It’s going to alter our landscape here, so we better make sure we do the right thing.”
This past week, officials from Florida-based NextEra Energy and Ann Arbor-based Atwell Anderson Construction, which provides engineering services, met with Merritt Township officials to discuss possible site plans for 15 to 20 wind turbines in the township. The project in total will use 75 wind turbines to produce 120 megawatts of power, or enough to power 30,000 homes, in parts of Bay, Saginaw and Tuscola counties.
Two weeks ago, the Michigan Public Service Commission approved a contract worth $485 million for DTE Energy to buy power from the wind farm.
Schabel said he doesn’t know exact locations of the turbines, adding officials wouldn’t show him blueprints when they met Monday.
But landowners with at least 80 acres of land who were approached by NextEra for land leases said they have a rough idea where the 466-foot turbines would be installed on their property.
Not everyone is happy about it.
A group of about 20 residents, calling themselves the “Concerned Citizens of Merritt Township,” aren’t filing petitions but are going to residents’ homes providing information on what they call the dangers of wind farms.
According to the packet of information circulating through the township, the group’s effort is to “maintain our quality of life, which will be impacted by the establishment of a utility-scale wind turbine farm in our township.”
Brad Histed, a Merritt Township farmer, admits the hot-button issue has not only torn the community in two, but also his family.
He’s concerned about the noise the turbines could potentially create — what he describes as a continuous, low-buzzing sound — and opposes the wind farm.
His brother, Terry Histed, signed off a piece of his property to NextEra, supporting the project.
“It’s at the point now where I don’t even care what he does,” said Brad Histed. “All they see is dollar signs — I feel like my life and my sanity isn’t worth a couple thousand dollars.
“I haven’t talked to him in a while.”
Terry Histed, former president of the Bay County Farm Bureau, said the hostility started when the citizens group started going door-to-door.
“I really don’t like the situation,” he said. “It’s friends, neighbors and even families against each other. It’s just too bad.”
Neither NextEra officials nor other property owners have disclosed how much money property owners would receive if they sign a lease agreement, but one farmer said he wouldn’t have signed onto the project if it wasn’t worth it.
Harold VanDenBoom was one of the first township residents to sign a lease agreement.
“The nation as a whole needs more alternative energy sources,” said the 77-year-old retired farmer who has lived in the area since 1944.
“Listen, there are groups that oppose that (Consumers Energy) coal plant in Hampton Township, there are groups opposing these wind farms — what do people want?”
VanDenBoom said he will receive a lump sum during the installation process of the turbines on his 200 acres of land. During the install, crews will have to build a temporary road. He’ll then receive a monthly check based on the amount of power generated from the turbines.
The $250 million project is expected to bring an economic boost to all three counties. It’s estimated to generate $50 million in lease payments to landowners, $19 million in property taxes and provide $21 million in wages and benefits over a 30-year span. Additionally, up to 120 construction jobs would be created, along with 12 full-time permanent positions to maintain the wind turbines.
“It’s going to generate money for the township, the county and schools,” said VanDenBoom. “There’s no reason not to go for it.”
Still, citizens opposed to the farm are asking for either the establishment of a no-wind zone in the township, or a change to the township’s 2010 ordinance that would increase the minimum distance between a wind turbine and a home from a quarter-mile to a half-mile.
Mary Wells, spokeswoman for NextEra said the company’s standard is 1,400 feet away from any home, about 80 feet more than a quarter-mile.
The citizen’s coalition group also fears home values dropping, the flicker effect — a rhythmic light flicker caused by the blades that could present health issues — and the impact it could make on the farming community.
Trennis Vaughn, of Caro, runs a crop dusting service for farmers in Bay, Saginaw and Tuscola counties. He refuses to fly his plane in the windmill footprint.
“If I hit one of those things, it would be catastrophic,” said Vaughn. “They ain’t gonna pay for it, I’m gonna be dead — it’s not worth it.”
Vaughn said farmers use his services if their fields are too wet to use a tractor or if they don’t want to run over their crops.
“I am out here providing a service making all these farmers a lot of money and they’re gonna lose that,” he said.
NextEra is starting applications for the various permits needed to install the turbines, which is expected to take several months. Wells said if all goes according to plan, crews could begin installation as early as this spring, pending approvals.
On Sept. 6, the Merritt Township Planning Commission meets at 7:30 p.m. at the Township Hall, 48 E. Munger Road. Schabel is unsure if it will draw a big crowd, but said individuals opposed to the project have been regularly attending meetings.
“All I can do right now is look at information and more information,” said Schabel. “We need to listen to everyone and do what’s right.”