September 13, 2011

Consumers ready to farm wind in Mason County, neighbors upset

By Bob Allen, Interlochen Public Radio, 13 September 2011

The west side of Michigan near the lakeshore is becoming a mecca for wind energy. An offshore wind farm is proposed near Muskegon. Another huge wind project is on the drawing board for the Benzie/Manistee area.

But the first large scale development likely to be built is south of Ludington. And local officials approved it despite strong objections from residents who say their concerns are being ignored.

The Project

Consumers Energy plans to build fifty-six wind turbines spread over thirty square miles of rural Mason County. Each turbine would tower nearly 50 stories above the landscape. It’s the largest single development ever to hit the county.

Large landholders, mostly farmers, who lease property for a turbine will reap benefits. But there are dozens of smaller property owners who live within the footprint of the wind farm who will get little or no compensation.

Small Landowners Object

Jeannie Parsons owns an acre within the boundary. She had some questions for County officials at a public hearing in August.

“How can this company take my property and put me in this boundary without no compensation, no input no nothing,” Parsons asked. “How can they do that?”

Consumers Energy spokesman Dan Bishop says the utility respects people’s objections to the project. But he says, look around, wind turbines are going up around the world and providing a lot of benefits. And he says this project will be good for Mason County.

“No question not everyone is going to be happy with the process. But in our experience the majority are,” Bishop says. “And we’re pleased with the support the project has gotten.”

Consumers’ officials say they offered to compensate all the landowners. But some people refused.

One of them is Cary Shineldecker. He says the utility offered him a hundred bucks a year for his twenty acres. “And I told them that wasn’t enough money for me to contact my lawyer to even read their ten page lease that has a gag order in it,” Shineldecker says.

He and his wife raised two sons in a restored farmhouse that’s two or three miles from Lake Michigan. Surrounding him are gently rolling hills and orchards. “I have twenty windows in the house and every one will be filled with turbine. You won’t see anything that you saw before.”

The Shineldeckers have put their house up for sale. But Cary says with the wind farm coming, Riverton Township is no longer attracting those who want to buy into a peaceful country life.

He prizes the quiet and the star filled sky. But he figures with fifty-some flashing red warning beacons and the whooshing of giant blades those qualities will change.

Citizen Group Forms

Shineldecker formed a group called Citizens Alliance for Responsible Renewable Energy or CARRE. They’ve done a lot of research and presented studies to county officials about noise from turbines, sleep disturbance and loss of property values. But members of CARRE feel as if local officials have brushed aside their concerns.

Shineldecker thinks the $240 million dollar price tag on the project makes it unlikely that the County will give them a fair hearing. “I don’t believe that they’re allowed to be fair,” he says. “The influence of the money coming into the county has overwhelmed their objective ability whatsoever.”

County Officials Respond

But the chair of the Mason County Board of Commissioners says the process has been fair and above board. Lewis Squires says the jobs and tax revenues coming into the county are important. But so is the continued health and safety of residents and the attractiveness of the area.

And he doesn’t believe the wind turbines will cause negative health effects, reduce property values or drive away tourists. “I find it to be, if it was such a drastic problem that there would be more outcry from the general public,” Squires says.

But the County did tighten a few of its rules. For instance, there is a stricter noise limit applied to properties that are not leasing to Consumers. It’s not as low as members of CARRE suggested.

Zoning administrator Mary Reilly says county officials hashed out these issues over more than a dozen meetings last winter. And she says opponents had a fair shake to make their views known.

The result, she says, is not simply giving Consumers Energy everything it wants. “And I’ve heard the term rubber stamp. You don’t have sixty extra conditions on a rubber stamped document,” Reilly says. “You don’t have fifteen drafts on a rubber stamped amendment.”

Members of CARRE say the extra conditions are all well and good. But they point out Consumers didn’t have to move a single turbine because of the new rules.

CARRE thinks the County was more concerned with meeting Consumers deadlines to qualify for tax credits than with protecting residents. And the citizens group says the County is ignoring an important part of its ordinance.

The rule is Consumers can’t get a permit unless its use of the land is in harmony with the essential character of the area. County officials say farming and other activities in the rural district will continue as before.

But Cary Shineldecker is unconvinced by that argument. “For anyone to take a look at the comprehensive plan and say that this isn’t going to change the character is simply not telling the truth,” he says.

A Fairer Way

Shineldecker says there doesn’t have to be winners and losers in this situation. He says Consumers could spend another ten million dollars and buy out the small landowners who don’t want to live near turbines and sell their properties to neighboring farmers.

“Or compensate them if their property is going to lose a certain percent of its value or there are health effects,” he suggests. “I mean, if there are negative effects and this is for a public good then the public should be compensated, those that are hurt.”

Consumers Energy has set aside a $2 million dollar Good Neighbor Fund for landowners who are in the wind park and who have issues with it.

When asked if he can say for sure that no person or property will be harmed by the project, County Board Chair Lewis Squires says time will tell.

But he also says if there are problems the County can shut the whole thing down. “So if they do not comply with all the requirements and regulations that have been placed in front of them, which is enormous, then the permit will be pulled,” Squires insists.

A County Appeals Board may decide this week if a special permit issued to Consumers meets all requirements in the ordinance.

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