BAD AXE – New wind projects will not be allowed in a majority of Huron County for up to six months, according to a moratorium county commissioners approved Thursday.
The moratorium applies to 16 county-zoned townships, where about 40 percent of the population lives. Huron is the state leader in wind energy with 328 turbines turning.
In an expected split vote, commissioners – after a third public hearing on the matter – sided with a moratorium 4-3. Commissioners Sami Khoury, David Peruski, Ron Wruble and Board Chair John Nugent voted in favor; Clark Elftman, John Bodis and Rich Swartzendruber were opposed.
But that decision came after a clearer 6-1 vote to make a last-minute change. Two wind projects originally planned to be exempt from the moratorium are no longer afforded that option, per an amendment approved by the board. Geronimo Energy’s Apple Blossom and RES Americas’ Deerfield Wind Project combine for more than 120 turbines. Planners on Wednesday continued reviewing the projects in line with the county’s existing wind ordinance. Both were approved for wind districts years ago.
“(This) would prohibit any action taken by any developer,” said Steve Allen, an attorney representing the board of commissioners, of the moratorium.
Allen said the action would be justified for Geronimo and RES Americas, developers that say they’ve invested millions into their projects, because “they did not have vested rights.” In other words, neither have obtained permits to build.
Swartzendruber cast the dissenting vote, saying he didn’t understand why the projects wouldn’t be exempted.
“To me, that is morally wrong,” Swartzendruber said, likening it to “changing the rules in the middle of the game.”
Elftman said constituents in his district of Caseville, McKinley, Winsor and Pigeon are “10-to-one against” a moratorium. Bodis said he has not talked with anyone in his district – Sigel, Verona and Bad Axe – that supports the moratorium. Khoury qualified his vote by saying just as roads and turbines need repair, “so does this.”
Commissioners have received hundreds of letters from Huron residents and businesses, developers and interest groups supporting and opposing a moratorium. Many have made passionate remarks at hours-long public meetings.
“I don’t know if it’s guts or stupidity,” said Board Chair John Nugent, of his decision to endure the myriad responses – sometimes backlash from local leaders and residents in his own district and other times praise. “I’m just doing what I think was needed to protect residents of Huron County.”
Nugent, who acted first to pursue a moratorium in December for time to correct a “deficient” wind ordinance, said he likes wind energy.
“It’s just a matter of controlling it,” he said.
County officials now wait for a nine-member subcommittee to submit a revised version of the wind ordinance. Members have worked for more than a year to make changes to the entire ordinance, notably in setbacks, noise and shadow flicker regulations. Peruski, chair of the Wind Energy Zoning Committee, on Wednesday offered a precise prediction that the work is about “93.6 percent” done and a draft is scheduled for mid-April. A final task involves updating a resolution process for when residents make formal complaints of wind turbines.
As for new projects, developers may appeal to the zoning board of appeals for a variance exempting them from the moratorium, or by waiver. No known new projects are in the works besides Apple Blossom and Deerfield, Jeff Smith, the county’s building and zoning director, said in February.
Another developer, Heritage Energy, is requesting approval to add 15 turbines to its Big Turtle Wind Farm, for a total of 25. On Wednesday, planners tabled a vote until May, citing a need for more information.
DTE Energy is hoping for a “yes” vote in a May referendum that will ask Meade Township voters if a project should continue. It would add about 50 turbines. Meade is self-zoned, so the project could continue independent of the moratorium if voters approve the measure.
DTE has not publicly revealed plans for new projects in county-zoned townships. The utility requested Thursday’s hearing.
“Putting a moratorium in place sends a message,” said Matt Wagner, a DTE wind development manager, in a prepared statement. “Not only to the public, including landowners, but also to wind developers, builders, suppliers to the wind industry, other investors in Huron County and the state of Michigan. Those who hear about a moratorium in Huron County will not likely understand the details and this will create uncertainty.”
Word of a moratorium also draws attention to Huron County, Wagner said, “but unfortunately not the right kind.”
“If the state is counting on more wind energy in the future and looks to the Thumb for some of this, it’s hard to predict how a moratorium will impact this,” he said. “A moratorium will, in the end, actually hurt Huron County’s future, than help it.”
About 40 residents spoke during the hearing. Stances toward the moratorium were just as split as the vote.
Those in support called for time to create stricter, more modern regulation and voiced complaints on problems associated with turbines.
Meade resident Rita Parsch said she does not enjoy the view from her deck with 53 red lights from turbines in the distance. She said she has nothing to lose but peace, quiet and a love for wildlife – all of which could be compromised further with more development, according to Parsch.
“We were here first,” Parsch said. “I love this county.”
And her vocal opposition at several local meetings has ruined friendships, she said.
“People won’t even look at me at the store.”
Mary Nowak of Ubly said she puts earplugs in and turns the TV on but still hears noise from nearby turbines.
“Could you take a couple turbines down behind me so I can sleep?” Nowak said.
Others stated they had no problems with turbines nearby their homes. Business owners hailed significant revenue and job creation from wind projects. And some cautioned commissioners that the entire state is watching.
Jeff Pilarski of Laborers’ Local 1098 stood with others in matching orange shirts. The union, with some members from Huron County and others statewide, helps developers build projects.
“We’re not here as a force,” Pilarski said. “These guys want to go to work, provide for their families and make a living.”
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