Last week, Meade Township Supervisor Bernie Creguer gave simple advice to those wanting to attend an upcoming townhall meeting: bring your own coffee and a blanket.
Some may have needed the caffeine, but blankets didn’t unfold this time around.
On Tuesday, about 125 residents cast their eyes toward township planners and board members faced with the tireless and contentious task of voting whether to approve a wind energy overlay district for DTE Energy’s newest wind park in Meade and Colfax townships.
Meade leaders voted to delay a final decision until next month, after hearing almost four hours of comment and debate from residents in Meade and other townships, DTE officials and lawyers.
Approval of a wind energy overlay district does not guarantee developers the right to build; rather, it designates areas within a county deemed suitable for construction of a wind park. A site plan must then be submitted to and approved by planners and the township board before construction can begin.
Previously reported to be a 58-turbine project within the two townships, DTE said it originally planned for 52 turbines in Meade Township, with another 13 in Colfax. That number has since been reduced to near 42 for Meade Township.
Installation of the $250 million, 100-megawatt park would power the utility to 10.2 percent of the 10 percent renewable energy goal utilities must meet by 2015, DTE officials said. The park would bring an estimated $4 million in tax revenue to Meade Township in a 20-year period, according to DTE.
‘Some kind of science fiction movie’
Twenty-six residents signed up to speak during public comment. It began with Meade resident Rita Parsch, who, among several other residents, submitted several documents to planners for review which cited negative effects of wind turbines.
Parsch implored township officials to “dust off your copies of the Meade Township master plan.”
“Read it, digest it and follow it,” Parsch said. “Our master plan does not support or promote industrial wind facilities, or growth that forever changes the rural atmosphere of our township forever, which is what 85 percent of the people surveyed said was the most important thing about this beautiful township.”
Carl Duda, a Lincoln Township resident and county planning commission member, said the county’s wind ordinance is not working and not protecting the people.
Meade resident Allan Yageman said he rejected an easement offered by DTE, his biggest concern being shadow flicker and noise from turbines.
“If you look out my window or through the backyard and look to the west, it looks like some kind of science fiction movie with all the red blinking lights at night,” Yageman said. “It destroys the night sky.”
Others submitted and cited documents reporting health effects from turbines, demanded revisions to the wind ordinance and urged a township vote for or against wind energy development.
“Even if we took a vote, Barack Obama got elected twice, so the majority can be wrong,” said Bloomfield Township resident Robert Gaffke, arousing laughter from residents.
Responses in favor of wind energy
Proponents said claims of turbines causing adverse health effects are unsubstantiated, tax revenue will help the township greatly and there have been very few issues related to wind turbines in the county.
Bill Renn, Chandler Township supervisor, said revenue received by Chandler Township has totaled between $1,400 and $1,700 per turbine.
“(Chandler Township) added 245 percent more local source revenue through their budget than they did in 2013,” said Bad Axe resident Paul Holz. “In 2013, they had $489,000 for roads. In 2014, it’s set at $1 million.”
Louis Bushey said he is for renewable energy.
“No matter if it’s wind or solar, one or the other we’ve got to have some of it,” Bushey said.
Bushey said he has two sons who live within 1,500 feet of four turbines, and they hear nothing.
While hunting on his property near Souletown Road in Meade Township, Steve Butch said he had been sitting in a tree, within three-quarters of a mile of a turbine, and heard semi-trucks, a car revving and roosters crowing – but no turbine noise.
“When you’re looking at a wind turbine, it does change the landscape,” Butch said. “But with the money it brings in, it helps people out. Some people like it, some don’t, but we need to start looking towards the future.”
DTE says it has been acquiring land for the project for seven years.
Mike Serafin, standing near planners and front and center to DTE’s proposed map, responded to various facts, questions and allegations from speakers. Toward the end, his frustration was evident.
“Are we going to have an open meeting here?” Serafin said after repeated probing from Joshua Nolan, a Toledo attorney representing resident Rita Parsch, who helped gather signatures for a petition requesting stricter amendments to the township’s wind ordinance in the areas of setbacks, sound levels and turbine height.
Serafin said the process of getting an overlay district approved in Meade Township has been second in degree of difficulty only to Lake Township, where a 2012 referendum asking residents to approve the adoption of the township’s wind ordinance was voted down 207-128.
“We knew going in that it was going to have a lot of challenges,” he said.
As many as 73 residents have signed a document opting out of the overlay district – a roadblock prompting the notion that without seeing a map of those who want no part in the project, officials would be voting blindly.
Residents who don’t want turbines, and others who have petitioned a “compromise” of 1,640-foot setbacks for non-participating property lines have caused DTE to cut its proposed 52 wind turbines for Meade Township to near 42 – the first time the utility has ever done so before having an overlay district approved, according to Serafin.
The utility countered with a compromise of its own.
“DTE is prepared to voluntarily increase the setback to non-participating parcels from 630 feet to 1,000 feet,” Serafin said, adding that the terms are contingent upon the overlay not being challenged and DTE’s ability to obtain waivers from non-participants. “We feel this is more than meeting halfway.”
Serafin’s next response was met with laughter and disbelief from some.
“We try to bend over and help out the citizens of Meade, and we’re being taken advantage of,” Serafin said.
Chairman Rob Heck said taxpayer money pays for turbines, as a part of surcharges on monthly DTE bills.
“Yes, you pay through your rates for these turbines,” Serafin said. “You pay about $50 a month for renewable energy, and you will get over 20 years, approximately $4 million in tax benefit in Meade Township.”
Heck responds to ‘veil of threat’
Before voting, Heck addressed a comment made by Serafin that he perceived to be ominous.
Serafin said accounting for the people who have opted out of participating in the project, “(DTE) has acquiesced” to let residents opt out. He added if the overlay is approved, DTE is willing to honor leases and compensate landowners to have turbines – protecting the township from “landowner lawsuits for taking what could be over $17 million.”
“You’re acquiescing on your own terms, not the township’s terms,” Heck said. “You’ve presented this to us with a veil of threat of litigation if we don’t pass it tonight. There was $17 million mentioned in fees that could be recovered. So personally, to me, that is a veil of threat.”
More than three hours of debate brought planners to a vote. Member Chad Gilbert motioned to accept the overlay district as presented, which was seconded by Secretary Diana Collins. The motion failed 2-2. Members John Osentoski and Don Koroleski voted against the motion, while Chad Gilbert and Diana Collins were in favor.
Heck, Vice Chairman Peter Shupe and Chris McCrea abstained from voting due to a conflict of interest. Heck and Shupe have easements for wind energy development in Meade Township, according to documents in the Huron County Register of Deeds Office, and Chris McCrea has multiple easements for wind energy development in Bloomfield and Lincoln townships.
Collins made a second motion to accept the overlay contingent upon inclusion of the 73 “opt-out” requests received at the meeting. It was seconded by Gilbert. Members voted identically and the motion failed.
The third time was the charm, when a motion was made to table the matter until the planning commission’s Oct. 28 meeting, until members can “see clearly defined ‘opt-outs’” on the overlay map. The motion passed 3-1, with Gilbert casting the dissenting vote. It was met with applause.
More conflict of interest
Talk on conflict of interest poured into the township board’s special meeting that followed. The board has the final say in approving DTE’s overlay, but voted unanimously to table a decision on the matter until its Nov. 10 meeting, after planners make a recommendation.
According to the Huron County Register of Deeds Office, no one on the township board has contracts with wind energy developers. However, trustee Robert Johnson said his daughter has a lease, creating a potential for conflict of interest at the board level.
Special note to Meade residents
If DTE’s overlay district is approved, those wanting to opt out after the fact would have to pay a $150 fee for a special meeting to do so, according to township officials. DTE says it will honor all “opt-outs.”
DTE has not obtained a contractor or building permits yet.
“Our next step is to get a copy of all the opt-outs, revise the map and re-present at the next planning commission meeting,” Serafin said. “Then we determine if there’s a next step or if it’s time to cut bait and move on.”