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Public hearing scheduled to discuss pros and cons of Bay County Wind farm

MERRITT TOWNSHIP – Harold VanDenBoom has a view of 200 acres of farmland in his back yard from the kitchen window of the home he shares with his wife, Dee. From his kitchen table he can see the location where a 466-foot wind turbine was to be constructed – plans that have since been put on hold.

“I was looking forward to seeing it out there,” VanDenBoom said. “I could tell really quickly which way the wind was blowing.”

A public hearing to help officials decide whether NextEra Energy will be granted a special use permit to construct a $225 million wind farm with turbines in the township is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Merrit Township Hall, 48 East Munger Road.

If the permit is granted, nine wind turbines will be brought to the township, part of a 75-turbine wind farm project spanning through Bay, Saginaw and Tuscola Counties. The utility grid wind energy system will also include an anemometer, a substation and related underground electrical facilitates.

But for VanDenBoom, the decision won’t affect his backyard. He was one of the first residents that NextEra contacted in 2009 to secure a property lease for original site plans of 18 turbines.

A 2010 ordinance ruled the minimum distance between a wind turbine and a home or roadway was a quarter mile, which ruled VanDenBoom’s property out.

“It was our decision to remove nine wind turbines from the plan that didn’t meet the requirements of the ordinance,” said Mary Wells, spokeswoman for NextEra Energy. “Nine sites were set back far enough from the roadways, so we are going forward with these.”

VandenBoom said that he was somewhat disappointed by the news, but if a variance was granted he would be back on board with installing a wind turbine on his property.

“I greatly believe that fossil fuels are doing a lot of damage to our environment,” Vandenboom said. “We can’t eliminate our carbon footprint, but anything we can do to minimize it is a positive thing.”

Not everyone in Merritt Township holds the same opinion.

“The community is divided and the issue is getting hotter as the date to make a decision gets closer,” said Dave Schabel, Merritt Township supervisor. “It’s very controversial and has torn families apart, turned brother against brother.”

A group of residents opposed to the project, 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.

The group has been traveling door-to-door providing information to residents about potential wind turbine concerns: home values dropping, the flicker effect – a rhythmic light flicker caused by the blades that could present health issues, noise – and the impact it could make on the farming community.

“I feel that people who oppose this wind farm have thought of nothing but their own comfort,” VanDenBoom said. “They’re just not willing to look at the big picture.”

VanDenBoom has also been circulating information and a petition in support of the windfarm, which NextEra reports will provide 10-12 permanent jobs to local residents, 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.

“The silent voice of the majority will be heard at the meeting,” VanDenBoom said.

A NextEra representative will provide a presentation on the wind project at the hearing. After listening to public comments and concerns, Merritt Township’s planning and zoning commission could decide whether or not to grant the special use permit that night.

“It’s hard for them,” Schabel said. “They’re just average people in a pretty hot spot, and they are trying to get as much information as possible to make an informed decision – hopefully we can put the community back together.”

Richard Porter, an attorney with Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in Rockford Ill., was hired to assist Wayne Lynch, a Merritt Township resident opposed to the wind farm.

“One of the wind turbines is near their property, and it poses some threat to their property value,” said Porter, who has handled a number of cases from citizens’ groups that are opposed to wind projects. “The primary concern is the impact that wind farms have on people, but wildlife including bats, pets and horses are also impacted by shadow flicker and noise.”

Porter said that he is looking to hire a Michigan counsel to represent Lynch. In his experience, public hearings on wind farm issues can last for days.

“It sounds like an awful rush of judgement,” Porter said. “It is surprising and disconcerting that the board could make a decision on such a dramatic change to the community that night – I have had hearings last for 11 days.”

Porter said that the counsel could present a property protection plan at the meeting to safeguard homeowners against the loss of property value.

Organizers from Concerned Citizens for Merritt Township declined to comment.