LUDINGTON – The decision by Mason County planners to allow Consumers Energy to construct a 56-turbine, utility-scale wind farm was a complicated one.
Just ask Mason County Circuit Court Judge Richard I. Cooper.
After hearing oral arguments from opponents of Consumers Energy’s Lake Winds Energy Park Jan. 4, the judge spent hours reviewing what he called “voluminous” exhibits presented by Citizens Alliance for Responsible Renewable Energy.
Cooper ruled late Friday in favor of the Mason County Zoning Board of Appeals, which gave final approval for the $235 million wind farm now under construction in Riverton and Summit townships. It is unknown if the opponents will appeal the judge’s decision.
According to Cooper, the heart of the CARRE case was that the zoning board of appeals “abused its discretion and thus rendered in an arbitrary or capricious manner.” The plaintiff’s asked the judge to overturn the Mason County zoning decisions but he refused, ruling in all cases that planners had acted properly.
The ruling allows wind farm construction to continue.
CARRE is a non-profit advocacy group from Albuquerque, NM that took up the cause of Mason County residents opposed to the wind park and what it would do to the rural areas of southeast Mason County.
Cooper went to great care in his 16-page opinion to state that he was not taking sides in the difficult and controversial decision to allow the wind farm to be constructed. Instead, he said it was his job to determine whether the zoning board of appeals acted in a “reasonable basis in relation to the evidence relied on.”
And CARRE gave Cooper plenty of written evidence in studies of various aspects of wind farm development. The judge outlined five areas raised by the opponents.
Health concerns: CARRE argued that proposed setbacks of the 56 turbines were too close to residents that the wind farm will cause health problems. The issue is noise, Cooper said, and the health issues of not getting proper sleep because of the sound of the 160-foot blades.
Cooper concluded that the Mason County zoning ordinance sound restrictions were in the middle of what other communities required, some higher and some lower. He said he found the Mason County standards reasonable.
Due process: The Mason County Planning Commission had four work sessions on the Lake Winds project before having a public hearing on the issue June 28 and unanimously approving the wind farm project July 7. The plaintiff’s argued proper notice of those work sessions were not provided but the judge disagreed.
Planning commission decisions: CARRE contends that planning commission members did not consider all of the arguments against the Lake Winds development on how it would harm the rural nature of the two townships. The opposition group had plenty of opportunity to submit expert testimony to planners concerning its opposition to the wind farm, the judge ruled.
Hazards: A major objection at the end of the debate on Lake Winds was that the turbines were too close to underground natural gas and sour gas lines, causing a dangerous public hazard. The zoning board of appeals relied on turbine manufacturer Vestas that the setbacks were adequate, Cooper stated. The judge pointed out that the company has had one failure out of 13,000 turbine installations and that occurred 10 years ago.
Financial impacts: Finally, the Lake Winds opponents argued that the wind farm would diminish property values in the area. Cooper concluded that the zoning board of appeals acted upon information that property values would return to normal over time.
For Consumers Energy, the Jackson-based public utility was at risk launching construction late last fall in the face of a lawsuit from opponents. Company officials admitted that they continued constructing the wind farm at a potential risk of having the judge reverse the Mason County decisions.
“This decision allows Consumers Energy to continue to progress in meeting the state’s ‘renewable portfolio standards,’” Consumers spokesman Dan Bishop said. “This allows us to stay on track.”
Michigan has a law mandating that 10 percent of all energy in the state be produced by renewable methods such as wind, solar or bio-gas by 2015. There is a move afoot to put a statewide ballot proposal before voters in November to boost those standards to 25 percent by 2025.
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