BENZONIA – Voters blew out of office three township officials who stood to reap financial windfall from a proposal to construct industrial wind turbines in their Benzie County community.
Joyfield Township’s supervisor, clerk and treasurer were recalled on Nov. 8. All had signed leases with turbine promoter Duke Energy Corp. for wind turbines on their property, according to recall petition language.
Residents also accused the township officials of resisting efforts to enact turbine restrictions or study turbines’ impacts on neighboring property owners.
Joyfield voters by wide margins opted to recall Supervisor Larry Lathwell, Clerk Gary Lathwell, and Treasurer Debra Lindgren.
“These three people were supposed to represent the interest of the township,” said Matthew Emery, who helped circulate recall petitions. “There was a lot of concern that they weren’t making decisions about where the turbines could be located, setbacks, and the kind of noise they would make. The kinds of things that are being discussed in all the other townships.”
The vote left former Supervisor Larry Lathwell “extremely surprised.”
He said vote results indicate enough people moved into the community to change its makeup from primarily agricultural to residential and recreational.
“I don’t feel I did have a conflict of interest, but everybody says I did,” said Lathwell, who noted the board never voted on the wind turbine issue.
Duke Energy proposes to build 112 wind turbines stretching to 500 feet tall with blade diameters of 300 feet in five townships along the Manistee and Benzie counties line.
Joyfield Township has no zoning ordinance or land use regulations since Benzie County’s Board of Trustees voted to eliminate county zoning about two years ago. The township is located south of Benzonia and is slated to hold the largest number of turbines in Benzie County.
“People were concerned about the lack of response to our requests to get into the issue and study it and give people some assurance this wouldn’t hurt their property values,” said Emery, who could end up with turbines in fields on two sides of his home.
The township board appointed a committee to study the cost of zoning. It then asked voters to support 1.5 mills in property taxes to raise almost $39,000 a year to pay for township planning and zoning. The millage request failed 269 to 101.
Recall organizers checked with neighboring townships and contend Joyfield’s proposed planning and zoning costs were inflated, Emery said.
“In a lot of our minds it was well in excess of what it had to be to put zoning in place,” Emery said.
Allan O’shea, a former Manistee County commissioner who worked as a Duke Energy consultant, said the company played no role in the recall.
“What goes on in Joyfield is really for the people of Joyfield,” O’shea said. “It has no relevance to the project at all. It’s just sad to see all of this friction.”
Recall supporters hope a new board will immediately adopt a moratorium on industrial wind development until the township can implement a zoning ordinance to regulate it, Emery said.
That doesn’t affect the project because the earliest the project would begin construction, if it even happens, would be 2014, O’shea said. Whether recall supporters get a moratorium depends on who ends up on the township board.
After the recall, Benzie County’s election commission appointed Lisa Sauer, the township’s deputy treasurer, to the township board. An appointment was necessary because the five-member board needed a quorum of three members to take any government action.
“We looked at the two deputies because we wanted consistency and continuity,” said Dawn Olney, Benzie County clerk and a member of the election commission with Linda Wilson, county treasurer, and Probate Court Judge Nancy Kida.
Olney said she didn’t learn until after the appointment that Sauer or members of her family also may have a lease with Duke Energy.
“I had no idea, and I don’t think the other members of the election commission did either,” Olney said.
Olney didn’t know if it would have made a difference in their decision, but election commissioners certainly would have discussed the situation before making a choice, she said.
Sauer could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Sauer’s board post won’t last long, Olney said. She only serves to give the board a quorum to appoint another person to one of the vacancies. She’ll then be removed, and the new board quorum will make the remaining two appointments. Appointees will serve until an election takes place on Feb. 28.
A reporter’s messages left with the two remaining trustees, Guy Sauer and Mark Evans, were not returned.
Nominees for the election will come from the county’s Democratic and Republican parties; each must name up to three candidates by Nov. 23, Olney said.
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