BAD AXE – A number of wind energy opponents earlier this week enlisted the Huron County Planning Commission meeting to vote against a proposed wind overlay district in Section 13 of McKinley Township.
The requested district is part of a new project DTE Energy is developing in Chandler, Oliver and McKinley townships. It is separate from the existing nine-turbine project currently under construction in McKinley Township. DTE Energy sought to include Section 13 in its new project because it has about 70 percent of the acreage in that section under easement agreements.
DTE Program Manager Mike Serafin said DTE has had the easement agreements with landowners there for the past four or five years, and the utility didn’t want to leave those landowners out of the project.He said the section only will be able to host a maximum of two turbines, and the exact locations of those turbines have not been decided.
Only one landowner from Section 13, Virgil Bouck, spoke during Wednesday’s hearing at the Huron County Expo Center. He asked the board to exclude his 120 acres in the northeast corner of Section 13.
The planning commission voted to approve the district, but exclude Bouck’s property from its boundary lines. This was following the public hearing where all those in attendance spoke against the proposed district.
Kevon Martis, a former Riga Township Planning Commission member and now a member of the group Interstate Informed Citizens, said planners used false criteria to approve former applications for wind districts, which serve as planning areas for wind developers to create wind developments. He said approval was given based on the fact that areas with wind developments would see large amounts of future tax revenue. However, with proposed changes to the personal property tax, changes in taxable values established by the State Tax Commission and a push to expand Michigan’s Renewable Energy Portfolio standard to require electricity providers garner 25 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025, that future tax revenue now is uncertain.
Another impetus in approving wind district applications has been concerns that if local governments do not approve districts, the state will take over wind zoning. Martis said there is no support in Lansing for ending local control of wind energy zoning.
As to the argument that wind developments help lesson the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, Martis claimed no such correlation exists because very little electricity comes from oil.
Martis referenced residents in Ubly who recently settled with Michigan Wind I developers in a lawsuit where they claimed the development harmed their health, safety and welfare, including by lowering their property values.
Though the terms of the settlement are confidential, wind opponents referenced that lawsuit in their efforts to sway planners to vote against the district.
Those in attendance included Robert McLean of Paris Township, numerous individuals from Lake Township and some Bay County residents. Many were seen picketing at the gates of the Expo Center prior to Wednesday’s hearing.
Lake Township resident Jim Quinn said having 1,200 to 1,500 wind turbines erected in Huron County and 2,800 in the Tri-County area will “overtake the landscape.”
“You people have to understand you will change the makeup of the Thumb,” he said. “ … Please think about what you’re going to do to this beautiful countryside.”
Clay Kelterborn of Lake Township was concerned the district is within three miles of the shoreline, and it features the Pigeon River, where bald eagles have been sited. He said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended turbines be sited at least three miles from the shoreline and five miles away from a known bald eagle nesting area.
Serafin told planners while the exact locations of the turbines in Section 13 have not been decided, proposed locations are three miles away from the shoreline.
Kelterborn reiterated past pleas with the planning commission to have turbine setbacks set from property lines, rather than from residential dwellings. He said not having the setbacks from the property lines takes away property rights, and the planning commission should respect people who don’t want to participate in wind developments as much as it respects people who do wish to participate.
Pam Jonas of Bay County said the county should reconsider approving district areas until wind developers can pinpoint the exact locations where they want to build turbines. She said that way, the county is not committing a whole section of land.
“That section you’re committing, you’re committing forever,” she said.
Joe Pobanz of Lake Township asked why wind developments are called wind farms, and not “wind businesses.”
“It’s not a farm,” he said.
Lake Township Clerk Valerie McCallum said she and many of the others at Wednesday’s hearing have been before the planning commission many times asking the county to review and revise its ordinance before the county approves any new districts. She said a step in the right direction would be to consider the location of McKinley Township, including the river that runs through it, and review/revise the ordinance before continuing to approve more overlay districts.
Lou Collette of Lake Township questioned what tax revenue will come from the project that includes McKinley Township.
Planning Commissioner Clark Brock said currently, there is a sizeable tax advantage from industrial property tax the county, local units of government, schools and libraries receive from wind developments. He said he’s not saying that funding is locked down, but it is what exists today.
A resident from Bay County cautioned the board to look into the funding – claiming that townships will only receive $1,000 per turbine in tax revenue over 30 years. County officials took this with disbelief, as area townships already have received much more than that from the two wind developments that have been operating in Huron County. In 2011 alone, host townships in Huron County received more than $239,000 in taxes paid for wind turbines, according to information previously obtained from Huron County Treasurer Sherry Learman.
A Bay County resident also was concerned that schools that receive tax revenue from wind developments will have their per-pupil funding decreased. Joe Murphy, Huron Intermediate School District Superintendent, told the Tribune that is not the case. He said the revenue schools receive from developments goes toward their debt and sinking funds. He said schools do not lose per-pupil funding because they receive revenue for their debt and sinking funds.
But, considering the uncertainty regarding future tax revenue from wind developments, some in attendance at Wednesday’s hearing wanted the board to hold off on its approval of the district. Bob Siverson of Lake Township said he doesn’t know why the board is considering anything other than a moratorium on new wind developments until the uncertainty of future tax revenue is resolved.
Cindy Jurik of Lake Township questioned what would happen if the wind developer built a project, declared bankruptcy and abandoned a wind farm. Though it wasn’t in answer to Jurik’s question, officials periodically referenced the county’s wind zoning ordinance, which includes a provision requiring developers give the county financial assurance to pay to take turbines down in the event a wind farm no longer is in operation and the developer can’t afford to decommission the wind farm.
Another question Jurik posed was whether the county has a plan in the event illegal immigrants are hired to work on the construction of a wind farm.
Robert McLean said there’s a very real problem with having five planning commissioners on the board who have lease agreements with wind developers, and also felt the board needs to revise its ordinance.
“Let’s put a stop to this rubber stamping … continually allowing this to go on,” he said.
In order to get approval for a wind overlay district, developers have to meet three requirements: 1. There are sufficient wind resources to support a commercial wind energy project. 2. There are a sufficient number of acres under lease in the project. 3. It conforms with the county’s master plan’s goal of preserving farmland.
Serafin outlined the ways DTE has met those requirements during Wednesday’s hearing. The board then questioned him on DTE’s stance regarding changes made by the State Tax Commission last fall that ultimately decreased the taxable value of wind turbines. He stressed that was not his area of expertise, but did acknowledge that DTE is not opposing the changes by the State Tax Commission.
All voting planning commissioners voted in favor of the district, with the amendment excluding Bouck’s property from the district. Planner Ervin Haley abstained from voting because he has a wind contract in that project.
Following the vote, Quinn challenged the board to answer whether anyone on board is opposed to wind energy. After receiving no answer, he noted a good board would be comprised of 50 percent in favor and 50 percent opposed.
One Bay County resident questioned planners on whose behalf did they vote for. She noted not one person spoke in favor of the district during Wednesday’s hearing, and more than a dozen people asked the board to say no.
“When the will of the people said no, you voted yes,” the Bay County resident said.
Huron County Commissioner Steve Vaughan said the planning commission had a duty to abide by the state’s zoning act and the county’s wind zoning ordinance when considering DTE’s application. He said DTE fulfilled all the requirements in the ordinance and the planning commission didn’t have a reason to reject the wind district overlay application.
Planners mostly listened to comments and declined answering most questions posed from the wind development opponents. Following the meeting, however, it was noted that residents in McKinley Township previously voted in favor of having a wind overlay district in the township.
Also, it was stated that more than 70 percent of the acres in Section 13 were under lease in the project.
“As far as the PC is concerned, the developers have to prove they have that leased acreage, which shows support from those property owners living in that jurisdiction,” said Huron County Building and Zoning Director Jeff Smith.
Planning Commission Chairman Fred Hansen said the planning commission is willing to consider any reasonable requests – as illustrated by the fact that it excluded Bouck’s property from the overlay district in Section 13.
He said if the people who complained were from McKinley Township – which is under Huron County’s zoning jurisdiction, unlike Lake and Paris townships and Bay County – things would be different. But everyone who spoke during the hearing was from outside of the county’s zoning jurisdiction.
Hansen cautioned that the planning commission cannot make decisions that result in taking away a landowner’s rights. In this instance, it’s clear the majority of landowners in that section favor the wind district.
One thing that was brought up during the public hearing that the county might want to consider in the future is having the same property setbacks for nonparticipants and participants within a wind overlay district, Smith said.
He noted it would provide all landowners the same protections, and there is a provision in the zoning ordinance that lets developers get an easement with landowners who wish to have turbines sited closer to their property lines than what’s allowed by the county’s zoning ordinance.
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