MERRITT TOWNSHIP – A Bay City attorney representing the small farming community of Merritt Township says residents have no legal authority to prohibit part of a $250 million wind energy project from sprouting up in the community.
More than 130 residents attended the township’s monthly board meeting Tuesday night, with about half in favor of the project that is expected to change the landscape of the southern Bay County township. It has been an issue that has torn the community in two, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and even family members against each other.
John McQuillan, the township’s attorney, said a public hearing in 2010 that resulted in a quarter-mile ordinance for any wind turbine from a home gave residents an opportunity to object the project.
“Residents of Merritt Towship have no legal authority to prohibit the development of wind energy within the township boundaries,” he said Tuesday night. “Merritt Township wanted to regulate wind turbines and they did that.”
Public comment lasted for about an hour, with residents in favor and against taking three to five minutes to share their opinion. Each response was followed by applause from those who agreed.
A group of residents, called “Concerned Citizens of Merritt Township,” have hired a Saginaw attorney to represent them in their attempt to change 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. Matt Honamon, of Braun and Kendrick PLC, called for the township board to implement a six month moratorium on any project development to allow officials and residents to further research the issue.
“Tonight, we see arguments from both sides – pro and con on this argument,” said Honamon. “That’s even more reason to put this moratorium into place.”
Honamon said he didn’t disagree with McQuillan’s legal analysis.
Residents against the wind energy project, which is expected to have about 75 wind turbines scattered throughout Bay, Saginaw and Tuscola counties and up to 20 turbines in Merritt Township, are concerned about shadow flicker in their homes, noise levels and home values.
“I’m fighting for my home,” said Galen Kaliszewski, one resident opposed to the project. “I enjoy it the way it is – peaceful and quiet. The board is selling homeowners up the river.
“You want to look at tax base? You’re going to be looking at a loss in tax base, and in the millions. It doesn’t take much to see that.”
Magen Trask, president and chief executive officer of Bay Future Inc., Bay County’s economic development arm, said Tuesday the organization has been working with Florida-based NextEra Energy on the project. She said the project could bring $285,000 in tax payments to Merritt Township annually.
NextEra Energy officials have said the project could 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 for the entire project.
Dan Fingas, spokesman for Michigan Labor Group 1098 said the project could brings tens of thousands of hours of work for local contractors.
“That’s all local people with good paying jobs with health and retirement benefits,” said Fingas. “That type of work can happen here – we definitely support this project.”
Merritt Township Supervisor Dave Schabel calls the project one of the hottest issues the township has ever faced. He was pleased with the civility of residents during public comments Tuesday night.
Two Bay County Sheriff’s Officers were in attendance at the meeting, guarding over the parking lot, after one vehicle’s tires were slashed over the issue at last week’s zoning and planning meeting.
NextEra still needs to obtain environmental and air permits for the project, before going to the township’s zoning and planning commission for final approval. That’s expected to take several months, but crews could start installation as early as this spring.
Four officials from NextEra were at Tuesday’s meeting, but declined to comment on the issue.
One township resident hopes the company’s timeline can stay true.
“It’s not fair if we even delay the game,” said Ken VanDenBoom. “We need to live by the rules we created, put faith and trust in God and move on.”
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