At the outset, it was seen as a beautiful partnership: the rolling hills and farmland just south of Ludington hosting nearly 60 towering wind turbines, producing clean energy.
In the 15 months since the Lake Winds Energy Park came online, the relationship between operator Consumers Energy and many residents in that area near Lake Michigan has become less idyllic and more contentious. There have been disputes between company and county over zoning interpretations, a civil lawsuit and allegations of adverse health effects.
Seventeen plaintiffs in Scottville and Ludington, who don’t have turbines on their property, have signed on to a lawsuit complaining of sleeplessness, headaches, dizziness, nausea, stress and fatigue. Mason County and Consumers officials are hashing out a way to deal with the noise issue while a court decides if the utility has violated local zoning rules.
A judge has ruled Consumers must submit a mitigation plan – a document that the planning commission discussed with consultants Tuesday night and will revisit next month.
Residents who allowed the turbines to be erected on their property have received financial compensation. The wind farm has produced mixed feelings in the community, local leaders say.
“There are members of our community that are happy that the turbine farm is here,” said Fabian Knizacky, Mason County’s administrator. “Some look at it from the standpoint that it was a bad decision by the planning commission and the county board. Probably, the majority of the population looks at it from the standpoint that the farm is here, and we need to make sure (Consumers) complies with the zoning ordinance as it was put in place.”
The controversy is playing out in Mason County while Consumers prepares to complete work this year on its second Michigan wind farm: Cross Winds Energy Park in Tuscola County east of Bay City. That project – one of four under development statewide, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission – will involve even more turbines.
Asked if the issues that have cropped up on the state’s west side have altered the company’s approach to installing a wind farm in the Thumb area, Consumers’ spokesman Dennis Marvin essentially said no. The utility operates in accordance with zoning rules enacted by the host communities, he said, including those of Mason County.
He said the courts will agree that it has met its obligations.
Similar disputes have played out in other areas of Michigan and nationwide as some states and utilities have attempted to expand the use of renewable energy. The state has 17 operating wind farms, according to the Public Service Commission.
Two years ago, 20 Huron County residents who sued the companies behind the Michigan Wind I project settled their suit over noise and nuisance issues. That same year, residents in Bay County’s Merritt Township successfully protested plans to site a handful of turbines in their area because of the same concerns.
In Mason County, the zoning ordinance calls for a setback of 950 feet between turbines – which reach up to 330 feet high and have 150-foot blades – and inhabited structures. That distance has not been enough to keep noise concerns from reaching the 51st Circuit Court in downtown Ludington.
In anticipation of the arrival of Lake Winds Energy Park, county officials passed changes to its zoning ordinance in June 2010 governing the installation and operation of wind turbines. The document set a limit of 45 decibels for the turbines.
When Lake Winds began operating, Mason County hired a consultant to test the wind farm’s noise levels and found they exceeded the decibel limit at certain times in four areas. The planning commission then asked Consumers Energy to submit a plan outlining steps to reduce the sound reaching neighbors.
But Consumers officials contend their operation meets the language of the zoning ordinance and that the consultant’s analysis improperly included background noise that had nothing to do with the turbines.
“All we can do is follow the standards. That’s what we attempt to operate by,” Marvin said. “The modeling we did for Lake Winds suggested we would be under the decibel level requirement, and we believe we are.”
The company balked at the request for a mitigation plan, asking Mason County’s Board of Zoning Appeals to find in its favor, but was ultimately rebuffed. As a result, Consumers has taken its case to court.
Judge Richard Cooper initially ruled Consumers must submit its mitigation plan, but has allowed the utility to continue operating as it has while the zoning ordinance issue is settled.
For 17 people living in vicinity of Lake Winds Energy Park, it’s problematic. And their concerns go far beyond noise, including allegations of:
■ A “flicker/strobe light effect” that falls over properties and into homes.
■ A “highly visible glare” coming off the turbines in sunlight.
■ Flashing red lights attached to the turbines that reflect off the blades and “overwhelm the night sky and (are) readily apparent from inside plaintiffs’ homes.”
Plaintiffs contacted by The Detroit News declined to discuss their situations, referring inquiries to Saginaw-based attorney Craig Horn. The homes his clients own, Horn said, are worth roughly 40 percent less due to turbines less than a half-mile away.
Horn argues the setbacks are a key part of the problem, and that Consumers and other communities are likely to extend the distance between turbines and inhabited structures in the future.
“The nature of the terrain in Mason County is unusual because it’s rolling,” he said. “Some of these people built homes with nice views over a valley. But instead of having the wind turbines far below them, they’re almost at eye level. It makes it both louder and more (visually) intrusive.”
Consumers spokesman Marvin declined to discuss the pending litigation. He confirmed the setbacks in Tuscola County will be an additional 50 feet, but said that is due to a different kind of turbine being used on the Cross Winds project.
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