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Commissioners pass wind energy moratorium

The Huron County Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 for a zoning ordinance amendment that halts any new wind energy development for 90 days or until the ordinance is updated with changes recommended by the Wind Energy Zoning Committee.

During a special meeting held after two public hearings April 2, commissioners Sami Khoury, John Nugent, Dave Peruski and Ron Wruble voted for the resolution creating a moratorium, and Clark Elftman, Richard Swartzendruber and John Bodis voted against it.

Following the 90 day period, commissioners will have the opportunity to extend the moratorium for another 90 days if the planned changes to the ordinance have not been made.

The Wind Energy Zoning Committee has been working on ordinance revisions for more than a year, and Peruski, who chairs the committee, said he expects it to submit the updates to the planning commission sometime this month.

Acting on a recommendation from County Corporation Council Steve Allen, commissioners also voted to strike wording in the resolution that would have excluded any project for which developers have already submitted a site plan review request to the planning commission.

When the moratorium was introduced by the board, two companies would have qualified for the exclusion, RES Americas and Geronimo Wind Energy. During Wednesday’s Huron County Planning Commission meeting, Heritage Wind Energy submitted a site plan review application for Phase II of the company’s Big Turtle Wind Farm. Phase I of the wind farm consisted of 10 turbines located in Rubicon Township. Phase II adds 15 turbines and extends the wind farm into Bloomfield Township.

Big Turtle’s site plan review request caused the commissioners to reconsider the exclusionary language within the motion, because it demonstrated that commissioners have no way of knowing how much investment any company has made in the planning and development stage.

“An applicant for site plan approval does not have to share their plans with county government, or any government, prior to the time that they make application. … As a governmental entity, we function in the dark with respect to what might be lurking out there and coming forward,” Allen said.

If RES and Geronimo are excluded from the moratorium, the county risks litigation from developers that are also nearing the construction phase of planned projects, he said.

Allen stressed that any wind developer that anticipates beginning construction before the moratorium expires may apply for a variance or waiver, a process that is outlined in the moratorium resolution.

“It gives them a provision to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals to make their argument that they have invested such amount of money and it would be unjust to include them in the moratorium,” Allen said.

Six commissioners voted for striking the language to exclude certain projects, with Swartzendruber casting the dissenting vote. Bodis noted that he voted for the language change only because the county attorney recommended it, but he would not vote for any moratorium.

As of Tuesday night, no developer had officially filed documents to be exempted from the moratorium.

Approximately 130 people attended the meeting and public hearings, many wearing T-shirts to advertise their opinion. Dozens of union workers who have contracts with wind energy developers wore orange, and several spoke about how the moratorium could impact their income and ability to find employment near their Huron County homes. Several people donned shirts that warned of the health risks they believe turbines pose to the public, and many people told commissioners about the problems they’ve encountered since turbines were constructed near their homes.

In total, approximately 20 people spoke in favor of the moratorium and 21 people spoke against it.

Resident Mary Nowak said she’s suffered since turbines were installed near her house, and no matter what she does, she hears them all night if the wind is blowing in the right direction.

“I put ear plugs in, I turn the TV on and I can still hear them. Boom, boom, boom. I don’t think any of you have done the right thing for a lot of us, and you don’t seem to care that my health is deteriorating because of this, because I can’t sleep,” she said. “Anyone who is going to have them around their house, it could happen to them too.”

Yvonne Bushey, of Lake Township, said many people, including her adult sons and their families, live within wind districts without any problems, and that the economic benefits wind developers bring to the area have been “wonderful.”

“There are annoyances in every convenience we have in this world,” she said, pointing out that many people live near noisy airports. “The people who live within that range hear those planes go over every day until 11 o’clock at night or 12 o’clock and then start again at 5 in the morning. They hear them. They live with them. You don’t hear their complaints. … You get used to it. … Sometimes, we need to accept these things if we want to improve our economy, our living conditions and our enjoyment of this planet.”

Also during the meeting, commissioners read submitted comments. Three people submitted correspondence in opposition to the moratorium, including two local business representatives who say Huron County’s service industry will suffer immensely if wind developers leave the area.

Gary Malchow, managing partner of the Holiday Inn Express in Bad Axe, quoted estimates that the three hotels in Bad Axe will lose $655,000 this year alone.

“The word moratorium freezes a developer. It’s analogous to pulling the fire alarm. If you have challenging developers, then address them directly, but don’t penalize the masses for the sake of a few,” Malchow wrote. “Businesses in the Thumb have truly enjoyed a windfall of revenue from the wind turbines.”

Approximately 20 people wrote in support of the moratorium, many from groups concerned about wind development’s impact on birds and bats.

David Peters, of Saginaw, wrote that he’s an annual visitor to Huron County’s shoreline, and he believes migrating birds will be harmed if turbines are sited within three miles of the shore.

“Up until recently, these birds and the residents of Huron County have co-existed rather well, but now, the desirability of the lightly inhabited, open land with coastal winds has led developers to ask the people of Huron County to sacrifice the lives of the birds they share the land with. Public research has proven the toll of life that large scale industrial wind turbine facilities take on birds and bats,” he wrote.