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County makes deal to avoid turbine lawsuit

BAD AXE – Attorneys say a deal made with Geronimo Energy will save the county from being sued after it made a last-minute decision to disallow the developer from building its wind turbine project.

The deal allows developers Geronimo and RES Americas to move forward with their projects, while the majority of Huron County townships remain under a moratorium with no new projects allowed for up to the next six months.

County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously agreed to a compromise that would:

• Allow developer Geronimo to submit a modified plan for its 50-turbine wind park. The new plan would not place any turbines within three miles of the Saginaw Bay shoreline – at least nine were planned within this zone – according to Geronimo.

• Require commissioners and county planners to vote in favor of letting the project continue, so long as it meets current county ordinances.

• Relieve the county from due process claims against it made by Geronimo.

“My opinion is, that’s a valid offer,” said Steve Allen, the board’s attorney. “In my mind, that three-mile encroachment was the triggering event for all of that moratorium discussion back in December.”

The call for compromise came from Geronimo attorney Matt Zimmerman, who was upset after commissioners at an April 2 meeting reneged on an agreement that was part of the moratorium. At the meeting, commissioners made a last-minute, 6-1 decision just before voting – and before the public had a chance to respond – to axe a section of the moratorium that would allow developers Geronimo and RES Americas to continue projects. Commissioners said they followed Allen’s advice. The board then voted 4-3 for the moratorium.

About 15 minutes before the April 2 meeting started, Allen said Commissioner David Peruski had informed him the clause exempting Geronimo and RES had been taken out. Allen agreed Zimmerman’s claim was valid because the amendment came at the end of the meeting.

Tuesday’s deal would put Geronimo and RES back in the position they were expecting to have in February, Allen said. That’s when they were granted exemption from the moratorium.

Board Chair John Nugent said it was a great offer from Geronimo and that his opinion of the developer has changed. But the nature of imposing, enforcing and being accountable for a moratorium still brings new challenges to the board.

“It’s a messy time; that is obvious,” Nugent said.

A 5-2 vote in 2011 allowed Geronimo to move forward with its project. Tuesday’s vote does the same. Geronimo says it has spent “well over $10 million” on the Apple Blossom Wind Farm and redrawing plans will result in “an immense amount of re-engineering,” according to Project Manager David Shiflett.

And more interruptions on the county’s end could spell trouble.

“Going forward, if the planning commission won’t approve our modified site plan and we’re forced to take action against them, we’ll have to do that,” Zimmerman said. “We’re not waiving those claims.”

Geronimo says it will work quickly to submit a revised plan.

Commissioners first voted 5-2 Tuesday to put the clause exempting both developers back in the moratorium, as originally planned. Sami Khoury, John Bodis, John Nugent, David Peruski, Ron Wruble voted in favor. Clark Elftman and Rich Swartzendruber opposed. As part of the agreement with Geronimo, the board agreed not to object to any governmental agency that approves the project, such as the county road commission or Department of Natural Resources.

Another developer, Heritage Energy, previously came forward against the moratorium. Allen said because of that, he was concerned of an equal protection claim if only two developers were exempted.