BAD AXE – It took four hours and three votes, but Huron County commissioners have moved forward on a moratorium on wind energy.
On Tuesday, the board voted 5-2 to send to the planning commission an amendment to the county’s wind ordinance. It would allow a six-month halt on wind development.
Now, planners are expected to make a recommendation. The board isn’t scheduled to vote on a moratorium until March 10, after they receive advice from planners.
The board’s attorney, Steve Allen, said he tried to create a document imposing a moratorium, at the request of Board Chair John Nugent, to give “breathing room” for officials to revise the county’s wind ordinance and to allow projects under development for years to move forward.
The task proved taxing.
“I sat at the counter at 2:30 a.m. (this morning) with nothing better to think about than moratoriums,” Allen said after explaining the resolution.
Developers also are losing sleep over the issue.
“It’s disingenuous and onerous on our project,” said David Shiflett, Geronimo Energy project manager, adding that the developer has “played by the rules” in accordance with current county ordinances.
Rick Wilson, vice president of operations at Heritage Energy, said it is “unwarranted to implement a moratorium at this time.”
“It doesn’t seem that a moratorium would be legally justifiable,” Wilson said.
The board first voted 5-2 to change dates in the original amendment to get it in the hands of county planners quicker. Commissioners John Bodis and Clark Elftman were opposed.
The amendment exempts developers who have already presented a site plan to county planners. After a 6-1 vote, with Commissioner Sami Khoury opposed, a clause was added so that two projects can move forward under current regulations – Geronimo’s Apple Blossom, in the western part of the county, and RES Americas’ Deerfield Wind Farm, in the northeastern.
It also means Geronimo can continue plans for 50 turbines, nine of which the developer says would be placed within two to three miles of the shoreline – a controversial move that has drawn the ire of wildlife advocates and elicited strong concerns from residents and commissioners.
Developers with projects “in the pipeline” – those who have not submitted a site plan for review or an outline of areas deemed suitable for development – can appeal to the zoning board of appeals for exemption from the moratorium. No known projects are in the works besides Apple Blossom and Deerfield, according to Jeff Smith, the county’s building and zoning director.
A final 5-2 vote gave approval to send to county planners a request for moratorium. Commissioners Rich Swartzendruber and Elftman were opposed.
Elftman said his constituents asked him to oppose a moratorium.
“In no way would I support a moratorium,” Elftman said.
Developers also have an option to approach the zoning board of appeals for a variance. If not granted, they could then proceed to Huron County Circuit Court to move ahead, Commissioner Ron Wruble said.
Which is a concern for Commissioner John Bodis, who made a career in law enforcement.
“By doing this, we would be violating the law,” Bodis said. “And it’s a violation of our oath of office.”
Allen said the flexibility in the documents would put the county in the best position.
“Hopefully, if everything goes OK, we can avoid litigation,” Allen said.
Allen added that he was concerned for developers with projects who may be “lurking in the wings.”
“This exception is probably the best compromise we can make,” Commissioner David Peruski said.
An issue with wording irked Swartzendruber. Part of the resolution states that the county finds it necessary to establish a moratorium.
“I don’t find it necessary,” he said.
In response to Nugent’s comment that the county is entering into a gray area with a moratorium, Swartzendruber said it was a decision made by choice.
Issues in turbine height, speed, noise and setbacks from property should be revised, according to Commissioner Sami Khoury, who said he is in favor of a moratorium. The 1,320 feet setback the county regulates for non-participating parcels “has to change,” Khoury said.
During final board comment, Wruble, who chairs the finance committee, compared revenue from wind turbines and agriculture.
“For 2012, total agricultural revenue for this county: $654,564,000,” Wruble said.
Using a range of $6,000 to $10,000 in estimated annual wind contract payouts for 328 turbines – he did not include payments landowners receive for having substations and other leases – Wruble noted that turbine revenue is dwarfed at $3 million.
“It’s proportionately a spit in the ocean,” he said.
Before adjourning, Nugent said he believed each commissioner to have the best interest of county residents in mind when making decisions.
“This is uncharted area we’re involved in and we’re trying to be cautious,” he said.
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