Facing frustrated developers, worried residents and potential lawsuits, Emmet County plans to pay $12,000 to have its ordinance governing wind turbines within its borders at 35 decibels studied by experts.
A draft amendment forwarded to the Emmet County Planning Commission by the county zoning ordinance advisory committee would increase the overall sound limit by 5 decibels and would also adjust the language to allow turbines to operate at 5 decibels above the natural sounds of the environment, referred to as “ambient” sound in the ordinance.
The proposed language would effect only daytime noise limits for wind turbines, lifting the 35 decibel amount to 40 decibels from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
But, a recent public hearing on the issue netted significant opposition from county residents.
Still, the county is expected to spend $12,000 with its engineering firm, AECOM, to review the language and help it determine what might be a reasonable ordinance for all parties – and legally defensible.
Tammy Doernenburg, Emmet County planning and zoning director, told the county board Tuesday afternoon the current ordinance needs an expert to help define how natural sounds and turbine sounds are measured under the ordinance.
“In this room (the board of commissioner’s room) last week the sound level was 55 (decibels) without people talking, so the ordinance doesn’t take ambient noise into consideration,” Doernenburg said.
Since the Emmet County Wind Energy Systems ordinance was put into place in 2009, developers have characterized 35 decibel limit as exclusionary zoning – prohibiting any reasonable development – within the county boundaries. The sound requirement was a full 20 decibels lower than the state recommended 55 decibel guideline.
Raising decibel level could mean the difference between whether Emmet County has a utility scale wind farm or does not in the next few years.
Wind Farm developer Balance 4 Earth, LLC., based in Troy, holds between 3,000 to 4,000 acres leased, mostly on farms, in Bliss and Carp Lake townships to develop a network of larger turbines in the county. The project has been estimated by the company to be have between 15 to 25 wind turbines and would cost of about $150 million.
Although Balance 4 Earth was approved to build a temporary, 328-foot meteorological tower on Cassidy Road in Bliss Township in 2010 to research the wind patterns, all work on the project has been halted because of the county ordinance. It never built that tower.
Martin Nehls, project manager for Balance 4 Earth, said if the county ordinance is raised by only 5 decibels, it would not be enough to restart his project because large scale turbine technology would not be able to meet the sound requirements.
“We have a standstill here, because nobody will ever invest in a project under these conditions,” Nehls said. “Just imagine somebody wants to invest $80 million for the wind turbines and have a 20-year production policy in place and then you have a completely unclear sound situation. That will simply not happen.”
Some county officials have said the ordinance should remain in place and let technology adapt to stricter limits.
Nehls said he does not believe turbine technology will ever be able to meet such a blanket ordinance that amounts to what he believes is exclusionary zoning.
If the county has no reasonable way for wind energy uses in the county, it could be opening the door to future lawsuits.
“It is still on the table,” Nehls said of legal action for his project.
Balance 4 Earth has suggested raising the limit to 10 decibels above the ambient or natural sounds on a site.
“When the winds go up, the sound is going up just by nature,” Nehls said.
The draft amendment currently includes similar wording that would allow 5 decibels above the ambient sound levels.
“Five is very tight, but 10 above the surrounding sound is kind of industry standard and that would work,” he added.
Only one turbine has been built under the existing ordinance, an 11-kilowatt wind turbine at the Bliss Farm and Community Kitchen on Hill Road near Cross Village.
The personal-use turbine took more than two years to get approval through the county, forcing the building company to eventually agree to put a sound monitoring system in place at their cost that would automatically shut the turbine down if it generated more sound than the 35 decibels.
But, the turbine is currently shut down because the county has required developer, Lake Effect Energy Corporation, the Harbor Springs wind turbine builder, to pay for a sound and site inspection by AECOM – something the company estimates will cost the property owner about $2,500.
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