MANISTIQUE – Despite maintaining for weeks that a slow approach would be taken to the controversial subject of wind development in the county, the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners adopted amendments to the zoning ordinance Thursday. Following a presentation from a MSU Extension educator and a speech from the head of a local utility, commissioners chose to pass amendments to section 102 and 508, which include greater restrictions on any type of wind turbine placement.
Brad Neumann, a government and public policy educator with Michigan State University Extension, presented a variety of information for commissioners and audience members during Thursday’s meeting. During his presentation, Neumann touched on topics such as wind resource potential in Michigan, noise and shadow flicker from wind turbines, as well as the legal framework involved in planning and zoning.
“There’s a lot of wind potential in Michigan,” he said. “We’re the 18th windiest state in terms of potential for energy generation.”
According to Neumann, the wind resource potential in Schoolcraft County is mainly along its shoreline, where wind producers could obtain the 13-14 mile per hour wind speeds needed for optimal energy output.
Currently, Heritage Sustainable Energy, a company out of Traverse City, Mich., is proposing a wind farm in Inwood Township. Since news of the company’s plans was made public, county residents have chosen, for the most part, to either support or speak out against the project.
“Wind can be an issue that there can be different sides, and there can be different levels of acceptance,” Neumann said.
Included in these factors influencing acceptance are: the anticipated effects of the turbines, such as safety and noise; the fairness of the development; values and beliefs; education; the participatory process; and whether a local issues team has been formed to tackle any questions surrounding developments.
Neumann also touched on the issues of setbacks and noise levels of wind turbines. Using data from peer-reviewed studies, he noted that setbacks are put into place for the purpose of protecting the safety and welfare of residents. Neumann noted that setbacks can begin from property lines, road right-of-ways, the lease unit boundary or occupied buildings on the property in which a turbine is erected.
Another option, he explained, would be to place a turbine on or near the common property line of two property owners, allowing the setback to be measured from that location. This option would also entitle each landowner to benefit from any financial royalties of the turbine.
Going even further, Neumann said area landowners may form a landowner wind energy association.
“You have a number of landowners in a broader area that are working together, then, collectively, you have a negotiating stance,” he said. “You might have an opportunity for royalty payments or payments from the utility company to benefit more than just people that have a turbine site on their property.”
Neumann noted that acceptance of any turbine development might stretch farther if everyone reaps benefits.
Concerns about wind turbine noise were also addressed by Neumann.
“Noise is a complex issue,” he said, adding that it was “subjective”, since what serves as an annoyance to one individual may not bother others.
Neumann pointed out that a normal conversation falls in the 55-60 decibel range, and that Michigan has a set of sample zoning regulations for wind turbines, which includes a limit of 55 decibels.
“The World Health Organization has stated that 55 decibels is too low to produce hearing loss or long term health effects,” he said. “Some more research from other places in the world go back to somewhat lower standards … the
World Health Organization in Europe has a guideline of 40 decibels.”
Shadow flicker – caused by the sun’s rays passing through a wind turbine’s rotating blades – is another concern frequently associated with wind developments, Neumann explained.
“There are some concerns voiced over triggering seizures in folks that have photosensitive epilepsy, but the speeds of these things (turbines) are far slower than what physicians have determined … the strobing effect would have to be in order to trigger seizures,” he said. “Nonetheless, it is an annoyance and virtually every ordinance does require that a shadow flicker study gets conducted.”
Typical ordinances require that no structure receives more than 30 hours of shadow flicker per year. Neumann noted that some turbines have the ability to track their flicker, and if targeted at a structure too long, will turn themselves in a different direction to remove the effect.
Neumann also tackled the question of property values in association with wind turbine developments. He explained that there are three categories of property value concern, including: area stigma – concerns that the rural areas will appear more developed; scenic vista stigma – concerns over decrease in quality of scenic vistas from home; and nuisance stigma – potential health/well-being concerns of nearby residents.
Citing a 2013 study by Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, Neumann noted, “post-construction effects of wind turbines on property values, if they exist, are almost too small for detection.”
He added that this does not mean that there were no impacts on the value of properties with or surrounded by wind turbines, just that the analysis did not support the presence of a significant impact.
In regard to any avian impact, Neumann said that studies show there are generally less than four avian fatalities per turbine. Though he mentioned a wind farm in California is regularly responsible for hundreds of raptor deaths, Neumann noted that this was a “rare exception”.
He suggested the county request an avian impact study to be conducted by a third party before any wind energy company sets up in the area.
Neumann also took time to review the possible economic impact of wind turbine developments before moving on to the legal framework of zoning for wind energy producers.
“The courts have said that a zoning ordinance may not totally exclude a lawful land use where there’s a demonstrated need for the land use in the community and the use is appropriate for the location,” Neumann explained. “Government needs to avoid what amounts to exclusionary zoning, or creating a zoning scheme that prohibits a lawful land use from being established.”
Counties should ensure that any ordinance enforces only the minimum amount of regulation needed to get the “job done”, said Neumann. The county is at risk for violating any company’s substantive due process if: it fails to advance a reasonable governmental interest; it results in the unfounded exclusion of other types of legitimate land use; and it goes beyond what is minimally necessary to accomplish the public purpose.
Neumann explained that he had examined the proposed amendments to Schoolcraft County’s ordinance, and that one stipulation in particular raised concern – the required 3,960 feet setback of any utility grid wind energy system from numerous areas.
“What’s the public health, safety, and welfare rationale for that kind of a standard, and is it the minimum necessary to accomplish that public purpose?” he asked.
Neumann pointed out that the state’s suggested setback for turbines is the height of the turbine, including the blade in its vertical position. Since the typical utility wind turbine is around 400 feet, he said, the county’s zoning ordinance is requesting a setback of nine times the state’s example.
“Does that kind of setback amount to exclusionary zoning?” he asked. “I don’t know – a judge would have to rule on that.”
Neumann concluded his presentation by suggesting the county take a collaborative problem solving approach to formulating an ordinance, including allowing the government, private interests and community to work together to address issues and identify solutions.
Following Neumann’s presentation, commissioners asked questions, and then turned their focus to Daniel Dasho, president and CEO of the Cloverland Electric Cooperative. Dasho outlined his opposition to wind energy, noting the government was forcing the renewable energy initiative at the taxpayer’s expense.
“It’s not cheap, it’s expensive, and we’re going to have to pay for it to make it work,” he said. “You all are going to have to pay for it.”
Dasho also claimed that the Cloverland Electric Cooperative is the most renewable utility in the state, with 45-50 percent of the energy coming from hydroelectricity. He explained approximately 35 percent of this energy is produced by the cooperative, while they purchase the remainder from energy produced by coal, nuclear, wind or solar.
After Dasho’s comments, Commissioner Craig Reiter made a motion to approve the proposed amendments to sections 102 and 508 of the Schoolcraft County Ordinance, and then “hopefully” work on changes to send back to the Schoolcraft County Planning Commission.
Commissioner Dan LaFoille supported the motion, noting he would like to see suggested changes sent back to the planning commission as soon as possible, in light of information presented during the meeting.
“We’ve gone through this process and been very careful in trying to do the right thing,” he said.
Reiter said passing the ordinance in its original state was not his “first choice”, and that he would have preferred a moratorium on any wind development in the area.
Commissioner Jerry Zellar reminded Reiter that the ordinance did not have to be accepted as is, and that the board could come up with changes to the document to send to the planning commission without officially adopting it.
“Then we would still be at the point where we would have the ordinance that’s in place as the governing ordinance,” Reiter responded.
Zellar countered that the ordinance currently in place requires any person or company to seek approval from the Schoolcraft County Zoning Board of Appeals before any turbines can be erected.
“If that was the case, you’re going to have a few people on your zoning boards of appeal and they’re going to be sitting there and have Heritage come in … and asking for a variance, and they’re going to have to come up with some kind of precedence to say what it should be,” Reiter said. “They don’t have any guidance right now for the large turbines, so how can they make that call?”
Reiter added that these members would then have to seek out information from third parties, most of which could be “challenged”, and it would result in a “mess”.
“I think we’re setting a bigger mess if we adopt it,” Zellar said.
When Reiter expressed concern about what would happen with the windmills in the future, he gained support from Chairperson Al Grimm.
“That’s my hesitation is what is the future of windmills?” Grimm said. “Twenty years from now, are we going to be stuck with a bunch of windmills that are not usable? Technology has gone beyond that – there’s something much better – and that will happen?”
Zellar questioned whether Grimm was comfortable then, with continuing “burning coal until that happens?”
Grimm explained that there were other forms of renewable energy, and that he was concerned about the landowners who weren’t approached by or chose not to sign a lease with Heritage.
“What’s in it for them?” he said. “Nothing except this nuisance.”
He suggested that the county explore Neumann’s proposal of having multiple landowners benefit from the turbine either by sharing it on a property line or joining an association.
“Nothing is easy – this is truly a process that we have to go through,” he said.
Reiter said he would like to pass the ordinance, listen to an upcoming presentation by Heritage Sustainable Energy, set for June 17, then come up with changes to the ordinance.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Commissioner Sue Cameron, noting that the board asked MSU, Cloverland, and Heritage to make presentations so they could gain perspective on the ordinance, and now Reiter was requesting to adopt the ordinance preemptively.
Reiter then asked Cameron if she had any “notes” about the changes she would like to see, while shuffling through papers and claiming he didn’t have his because he didn’t “think we were going to do that tonight”.
“The bottom line is you’re going to adopt the one that is so exclusionary it’s unbelievable,” Cameron said.
Reiter said he would like to see the proposed amendments enacted before any company attempts to apply for permits to erect wind turbines.
“I think we need to have something other than what we have today – and this would do it,” he explained. “Is there some changes I would like to see in it? Yes. But the changes don’t have to be made tonight.”
Commissioners Grimm, LaFoille, and Reiter voted to adopt the proposed amendments to the ordinance, while commissioners Cameron and Zellar voted “no”.
Following the commission’s vote, LaFoille suggested forming a committee of two commissioners to propose the changes to the ordinance. Grimm and Reiter volunteered to serve on that committee.
Click here to view Schoolcraft County Zoning Ordinance amendments.
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