HURON COUNTY – Planners across the county are reworking wind turbine ordinances, debating how to regulate noise from turbines and setbacks from property and the shoreline, among other factors.
In the process, residents in some coastal townships have narrowed down what they’d like to see in an ordinance: three-mile setbacks from the shoreline.
Wind development along the coastline is a cause for concern for Monica Essenmacher, the head of a local nonprofit, Port Crescent Hawk Watch, which recently gained support from the Hawk Migration Association of North America.
Essenmacher, an advocate for the setbacks, said she has been collecting migration and breeding data on hawks for more than 30 years in Huron County. Although residents have voiced other reasons for the setbacks, the potential effects turbines have on wildlife remain a concern for Essenmacher.
“It’s not a fact that can be disputed that raptors are being killed,” Essenmacher said. “Many birds migrate through that are threatened species and Michigan endangered species that nest in Huron County.”
County planners and wind developers generally follow the three-mile setback recommendation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A couple of turbines, however, are installed and operating at just under three miles from the shoreline, according to Jeff Smith, the county’s director of building and zoning.
But for some townships that are self-zoned, the rules vary.
In Port Austin Township, Supervisor Darcie Finan says regulation for three-mile setbacks is being pushed. Finan said the wind ordinance is based on the county’s framework with “a few things a little more strict.”
Lake Township, in its most recent wind ordinance draft, has taken the three-mile recommendation and made it a requirement, applying it also to the Rush Lake State Game Area.
And in Sand Beach Township, the ordinance states developers cannot build within a mile of the M-25 corridor – meaning turbines could potentially be sited within two miles of the shoreline.
There are currently no turbines in the three townships.
Geronimo Energy has an approved area in McKinley and Winsor townships for its Apple Blossom Wind Project, which Smith said is less than three miles from the shoreline. According to the developer’s website, it is a $200 million investment and may contain between 43 and 62 turbines. A site plan hasn’t been submitted to the county, but construction is slated for next year.
Essenmacher said volunteers of the Port Crescent Hawk Watch specifically focus on raptor migration in the spring, from March 15 to the first week of June. The group “goes out when there’s a chance there will be a flight,” and have found “a lot of hawks that are going through” the Hume Township area and other locations in the Thumb, she said.
Near Sebewaing and Brookfield townships, Essenmacher said turbines are placed in a field where she’s seen thousands of tundra swans. The nonprofit does not conduct flight surveys inland, she said.
“I witnessed over 6,000 tundra swans sitting in the area, resting, feeding and recuperating before continuing,” she said.
Results from a wildlife study conducted for the largest wind developer in the county tell a different story.
The ongoing study uses 15 search plots spread across four DTE Energy-owned wind parks in the Thumb, according to Rhett Good, senior manager at Western Ecosystems Technology Inc., a Wyoming-based environmental and statistical consulting firm.
At its midpoint, the study shows there have been more than 40 wind energy-related fatalities of birds and bats. DTE Spokesperson Scott Simons said DTE will wait until the wildlife study is complete, sometime next summer, before releasing the species of birds that have been killed.
However, Good said the numbers are within normal range and no threatened or endangered species or “any of those species of concern” have been found so far.
Essenmacher says the figures are invalid.
“If municipalities are going to go by avian studies that are funded by turbine developers, they’re not going to find mention of something such as this migration that has been documented since 1991,” she said. “Right now, we are relying on numbers from the exact corporations that don’t want to find any dead birds, because any dead birds they find (means the corporation) is subjected to prosecution and fines.”
Huron County’s wind energy ordinance requires developers to submit an avian study to assess potential impacts turbines have on bird and bat species; identify plans for post-construction monitoring or studies; and explain potential impacts and propose a mitigation plan if necessary.
Lake Township takes that measure a step further in its wind ordinance draft.
The draft requires a third party, qualified professional, approved by the township, to conduct an analysis “to identify and assess any potential impacts on wildlife and endangered species.” Developers must take measures to minimize, eliminate or mitigate adverse impacts identified in the analysis, according to the draft.
Essenmacher received the letter of support from Hawk Migration Association of North America last month, which states its official mission is to “conserve raptor populations through the scientific study, enjoyment and appreciation of raptor migration.” Gil Randell, chair of the organization’s conservation committee, said data is collected from hundreds of affiliated raptor monitoring sites in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, including the Port Crescent Hawk Watch.
An article published in The Wildlife Society Bulletin last year by researcher K. Shawn Smallwood estimates 888,000 bat and 573,000 bird fatalities per year at wind parks nationwide. That estimate also included 83,000 raptor fatalities.