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Clinton County wind turbine project awaits decision

ST. JOHNS – In a few days, another year will end without approval or rejection of a Chicago company’s proposal to erect 40 towering, utility-grade turbines to convert the winds of Clinton County to power for households, farms, industry and business.

And while 2013 is likely to see a decision on the $123 million project that dates to 2008, approval by the Planning Commission and Board of Commissioners still would not initiate construction.

Years of litigation might be a more accurate forecast.

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“We’ve put forward a project that meets the requirements of the (county’s) zoning ordinance,” Tim Brown, managing member of Forest Hill Energy-Fowler Farms LLC, said in a telephone interview from his Chicago office. “We hope the county’s ready to make a decision. It’s been quite some time.”

Planning Commission action was expected Dec. 13. Brown and about 150 other people, mostly landowners opposed to the project, gathered at the Clinton County Courthouse to hear whether Forest Hill’s application for a special-land-use permit would be endorsed or denied.

They departed quickly after only three of seven planning commission members showed up and the meeting was canceled.

The next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 10.

If approved, the permit request would advance to the Board of Commissioners, probably in February.

Brown said he does not have a problem with the county’s “very deliberate” review process.

Ordinances passed by the Dallas, Essex and Bengal township boards requiring towers to be shorter than the 427-foot-tall structures planned by Forest Hill and allowed by county zoning are of greater concern.

The township ordinances limit the height to 400 feet in Bengal, and 380 feet in Dallas and Essex. The townships also have stricter rules for noise and require greater setbacks than the county.

“I think it’s unfortunate the townships adopted their ordinances and (doing so) certainly makes this whole thing very difficult,” he said. “There’s countywide zoning for a reason.”

If county approval of Forest Hill’s special use permit is secured, working through the township issues will be necessary, Brown said, but “as far as how to do that or what would we do, I’m not going to comment.”

“The townships’ goal was to kill the project,” said Forest Hill spokesman Dave Waymire, partner in a Lansing public relations firm.

“Reality is 380-foot towers aren’t economically feasible and the setbacks they put in there won’t work and everybody involved knows it. Then you end up with whether it is exclusionary zoning.”

Lawsuits that allege illegal exclusionary zoning in Michigan involve a three-part test, according to Bill Fahey, an Okemos attorney who wrote the bulk of the ordinances adopted by the townships.

The party attacking the zoning – Forest Hill Energy in this case – would have to persuade a judge that the township ordinances totally prohibit the proposed land use and demonstrate a need for the proposed land use in the township or surrounding area, Fahey explained.

If the permit applicant was successful on those points, the townships would have to demonstrate no appropriate location exists within the township for the proposed land use if they hoped to block the project.

“From my perspective what all this means is they’re going to have to comply with another set of requirements in addition to the county’s requirements,” Fahey said. “Clearly they can comply. There may be a question of whether the requirements will impose costs they might think are too high for what they’re going to get out of the project.