ST. JOHNS – The developer of a proposed 39-tower, $120 million wind energy project is suing to prevent three Clinton County townships from enforcing special ordinances that restrict turbines’ height, noise, setbacks and shadow flicker beyond the terms specified in the county’s zoning ordinance.
“It is literally impossible for a utility-grade wind energy system to comply with the townships’ ordinances,” according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Forest Hill Energy-Fowler Farms LLC, the project’s Chicago-based developer.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in Clinton County Circuit Court, said Dallas, Essex and Bengal townships adopted police power ordinances “in a collaborative manner to ensure the … project could not be built as permitted by Clinton County.”
The lawsuit said Forest Hill Energy has spent more than $1 million in crafting a project to meet county zoning. It cited state law that addresses zoning powers but did not refer to any previous Michigan cases about the power of townships to create tougher local standards.
“The statute is very clear that townships cannot pass ordinances that are inconsistent with zoning laws,” Jon Bylsma, Grand Rapids-based lawyer for the project’s developer, said in an interview. “That statute has not been litigated very much so there’s not a lot of case law in that regard.”
But William Fahey, the Okemos-based attorney for Dallas and Essex townships, said the state legislature has granted townships broad powers to regulate conduct for the public health, safety and general welfare.
“Our constitution says the powers of townships shall be liberally construed,” Fahey said. “Unless there is some specific statute out there that takes these powers away, the townships continue to have the powers and can exercise them.”
Clinton County’s new zoning ordinance also addresses the issue, Fahey said, stating in three places that the ordinance “does not take away any power the townships have independently to regulate activities in these townships.”
The Clinton County Board of Commissioners voted 5-2 Tuesday on Jan. 29 to grant a special-land-use permit to Forest Hill Energy, capping a community debate that started in 2008 and pitted landowners against one another on issues of private property rights, property values, health, safety and quality of life.
Bylsma said he hopes that the challenge to the township ordinances can be resolved within two to four months.
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