For four years, the developers of a $123 million, Clinton County wind-turbine farm have steered the project through opposition from some residents who learned their homes and property could be subject to the noise, ice throws, flickering shadows and financial impacts of 40 whirling towers each standing 427 feet tall.
At various times, Forest Hill Energy LLC has advanced, compromised and stood firm, depending on the reasonableness and financial consequences of the demands made by its leaseholders, local governments and project opponents.
By February, all of the local ordinances and licensing requirements created to address such developments likely will be finalized.
At that point, Forest Hills manager Tim Brown of Chicago and his investors could be forced to decide whether to build a smaller, quieter, safer – and therefore less profitable – project than envisioned. Or, they might decide to abandon the project, sell it, or up the ante in an expensive court fight with no guarantee of success.
“It is a little surprising to see this project running into controversy when the Clinton County standards are far, far stronger than those in Gratiot County, where a much larger wind project, with taller turbines, is moving forward and seems to have widespread acceptance and no evidence of the kind of health and safety issues that the opponents to our project contend are common,” Brown said.
Or, as some opponents suggest, perhaps Forest Hill Energy’s attempt to build an industrial-grade wind-turbine farm in a more populous and prosperous suburban county predictably was perceived as a threat to the health, quality of life and financial well-being of homeowners living near the project and those in the path of its future expansion.
In summary, the last four years witnessed:
• The announcement of a 29-turbine project in 2008 and its expansion to 40 turbines in 2010.
• The sign-up by Forest Hill Energy of an estimated 27 or 28 landowners willing to host turbines in their fields in exchange for a signing bonus and a share of revenues from the future sale of electricity.
• The organization of grass-roots opposition centered in Dallas, Essex and Bengal townships.
• Creation in 2010 of a Clinton County zoning ordinance and the revision of the ordinance in 2011 to tighten the restrictions.
• Application to the county by Forest Hill Energy for a still-pending, special-use permit to build and operate the wind turbines.
• Passage by the Dallas (September) and Essex (October) township boards of wind-turbine ordinances that are more restrictive than the county’s. Bengal Township has a similarly more-restrictive ordinance under consideration.
Those for and against the project agree the township ordinances are forcing the issue like nothing else had.
The township ordinances “are not intended to facilitate the development of the wind farms” and “would not work for a project like ours,” said Brown, the developer. “We’re going to have to examine the situation with the townships pretty extensively.”
The townships’ setback provisions and height restrictions would prevent placement of 427-feet-tall turbines in the townships, Brown said.
“They (township boards) know exactly what our heights are … so they’re deliberately picking heights that don’t accommodate what our plan is,” he said.
If Forest Hill’s plans comply with the county’s ordinance but conflict with the townships’ ordinances, which ordinance rules?
“There’s really no doubt about that particular issue. Townships can adopt stricter ordinances,” said Okemos attorney William Fahey, who wrote the “police protective ordinances” adopted by the Dallas and Essex township boards.
The ordinance passed by Clinton County’s Board of Commissioners “says in it three different times that it defers to any stricter ordinances that are adopted,” Fahey said.
Though Clinton County has taken a less-restrictive stance, Forest Hill Energy cannot count on the county as a partner in any court fight with the townships.
“What the townships elected to do is their own business,” Clinton County Administrator Ryan Wood said. “We don’t have a conflict with the townships. If their ordinance is challenged, it won’t be by us.”
Bob Boettger farms in Gratiot and Clinton counties. He was among the first landowners to sign a lease with Forest Hill. He describes the situation as “quite a stalemate.”
“This opposition group wants nothing less than stopping the project,” he said. “I think it’s unfair and unfair that three townships won’t accept what the county is doing.”
Boettger also said financial jealously “has reared its ugly head” among the project’s opponents.
Opponents Elizabeth Ayoub and Ken Wieber have reached different conclusions.
“I’m not upset with any of the landowners who are in favor of the wind-turbine ordinance,” said Ayoub, who is Boettger’s next-door neighbor. “It is not a personal issue. I’m trying to protect my potential health, safety and property values. I don’t think there’s a citizen in Michigan who would request less from his or her township officials.”
Wieber runs a dairy and cash-crop farm in Lebanon Township, a few miles west of the project. He got involved three years ago when he learned his farm was in the path of Phase II.
Much of his opposition has focused on the effects of turbine noise, primarily through sleep disturbance. He also feels strongly about property values and flickering shadows from turbine blades, which has been acknowledged as a public nuisance by the county.
Once safe standards are identified for noise, turbine heights and setbacks, Wieber said, it’s the county’s responsibility to act on behalf of of its residents – even if that means Forest Hill Energy has to modify its project.
Brown won’t commit Forest Hill to any specific action beyond following through on its special-use-permit application.
He, too, is frustrated by the approval process, though for different reasons.
“To have the rules quickly change or (be) subject to change at any time based on whatever the townships want to do … is problematic from an economic development point of view,” he said.
“How can you encourage growth and opportunity when the rules are subject to change at any time?”
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