LUDINGTON – Opposition to Consumers Energy’s Lake Winds Energy Park in southern Mason County persists as protesters came to a media event Thursday and a law suit begins in court Friday.
But the Jackson-based public utility is proceeding with its $235 million, 56-turbine wind farm in Riverton and Summit townships. Construction is underway on a 100.8-megawatt wind energy installation that is expected to be producing electricity by the end of 2012.
Opponents – many in the project area who have not shared in payments for leases of the turbine sites nor in the broader access easements – are being supported by the nationally-based Citizens Alliance for Responsible Renewable Energy, which has filed suite in Mason County Circuit Court.
“We want safe setbacks,” said William Parsons as he walked with a half dozen other opponents in front of the Ludington Holiday Inn Express Thursday morning. Consumers Energy officials were briefing members of the media on the Lake Winds project at the motel before touring construction sites.
Parsons said he owns an 80-acre Riverton Township farm that has been in his family since 1946. There are wind turbines planned for both sides of his property but he is not receiving any lease or easement payments from Consumers Energy, Parsons said.
“These turbines are just too close to homes,” Parsons said. “This whole thing is a scam for Consumers to get federal subsidies. The taxpayers are going to be paying for it.”
Opponent leader Evelyn Bergaila of Riverton Township said the law suit objects to the Mason County Planning Commissions special land use permit for the wind testing towers for the Lake Winds project. The suit also challenges the county’s approval of the 56 sites for the turbine towers, she said.
Bergaila said the turbine towers are too close to homes and natural and sour gas lines that cross the project area.
“We are totally dissatisfied with the whole project,” Bergaila said.
However, construction continues as the opposition to Lake Winds moves from the public meeting rooms to the court room. Consumers Energy spokesman Dennis Marvin said the company has legal permits to construct the wind farm and that original decisions by the county planning commission and follow up approval by the Zoning Board of Appeals were unanimous.
“There are no restrictions for us moving forward,” Marvin told The Muskegon Chronicle on a media tour of the wind farm construction sites. “We followed a legal process. We do not see a judge overturning those political decisions.”
However, the company remains at risk of an adverse court decision during construction or after the wind farm is in operations, Marvin acknowledged.
Bergaila also said she is not confident that the legal action will stop the Lake Winds project. However, opponents hope to change the configuration of the wind farm to make it safer from their perspective. The underground gas lines were not addressed satisfactorily, she said.
“County planners didn’t even know that the (gas company engineer) had opposition to the project setbacks,” Bergaila said. “At very least, we hope the judge will send the project back to the planning commission to review the distance to the gas lines. Hopefully, we can get a neutral review of the issue.”
Opponents said they have the feeling that despite all of the public meetings and investigation by county officials, the decision to support Consumers Energy was a foregone conclusion.
“They were doggedly-determined to approve this no matter what,” Bergaila said of county policy makers.
Mason County Planning and Zoning Director Mary Reilly said Thursday that there are no more permits that Consumers Energy needs from the county nor the townships to complete the Lake Winds project. She said county officials will continue to monitor progress on the project and make sure that company obligations in the special use permit are met.
As an example, Consumers Energy must install monitoring equipment to log the hours of “light flicker” once the Lake Winds turbines are spinning. Flicker is the shadow cast on homes by the turning windmill blades during sunny days and is one of the objections of wind farm opponents.
As for the underground gas line issue, Reilly said the issue has been addressed by county planning commissioners.
“The county did review the gas lines and there is language in the special use permit addressing that issue,” Reilly said of a point that will be disputed in the law suit. “That’s really all I can say on it.”
Meanwhile, Consumers Energy is continuing with its promise to establish a Good Neighbor Fund to provide $2 million to the community when Lake Winds becomes a producing wind farm, according to Marvin, the company’s communications manager for new generation. The fund is designed to provide payments to those who are negatively affected by the wind farm but go uncompensated.
The Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants has been hired to facilitate the disbursement of the Good Neighbor Fund, Marvin said. Former Michigan Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, a one-time legislator from Grand Rapids now with Public Sector Consultants, is acting as a neutral facilitator for the fund’s advisory panel that includes project opponents, he said.
“They have been meeting monthly since September and we are told they are close to a decision,” Marvin said of the advisory group. “The company has said it will be the citizens of the community who will decide how those funds are spent, not Consumers Energy.”
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