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County attorney gives advice on future wind ordinance changes

BAD AXE – On Tuesday, Board Chair John Nugent made county commissioners well aware of their power to change any proposed new regulations for wind turbines coming from county planners.

But basing a change on opinion, rather than reason, it wouldn’t be wise, according to the board of commissioners’ attorney, Steve Allen.

“We want our (wind energy) ordinance and its amendments viewed as based on reason,” Allen said.

Nugent said he asked Allen to speak during Tuesday’s board meeting to advise on the next steps in approving a new county wind energy ordinance.

The new regulations – which a subcommittee recently took 18 months to draft and forward to county planners, who reviewed and will send it back to a Grand Rapids-based acoustics firm for another set of eyes – will need backing of such “reason” if the county is taken to court over a restrictive ordinance, according to Allen.

“We have to meet expertise with expertise,” Allen said.

He was referring to the work of Acoustics By Design, an independent firm the county paid more than $20,000 to conduct day and nighttime sound studies and outline a 10-page section on turbine sound and noise for the ordinance.

“I don’t think we should deviate … when we’ve got (wind developers) who are paying big money for their experts out there and who are saying that our proposals are exclusionary,” he said. “Whether that expert’s right or wrong, at least we’re basing our decision on reason and not because we didn’t like the number that was selected by either the special committee or the planning commission. I want it to be as defensible as possible.”

Nugent said he intentionally didn’t attend planning commission or committee meetings, but would hate to see the work of a “well-informed” subcommittee “laid waste because of special interests.”

“There were all these wind (energy) representatives at those meetings,” he said. “(The subcommittee) worked hard on this. It was a good group. … So I’d just hate to see their work completely destroyed.”

Nugent took issue with planners making changes to the subcommittee’s draft. He reiterated that the board could reverse those decisions, which didn’t sit well with the county’s building and zoning director, Jeff Smith, who worked with eight others – including Allen – on the subcommittee and with planners to overhaul the 2010 wind ordinance.

Normally stone-faced during heated and controversial public meetings, Smith became irked.

“I work hard in that office every day,” he told commissioners, adding that county planners have put in a similar effort. “It just upsets me that the board would make changes after we spent a year and a half on this.”

Aligning with Allen’s advice, Smith said planners want to make educated decisions based on fact rather than hearsay.

If the board does make changes to planners’ decisions that are less restrictive on landowners, “that’s fine,” Allen said.

But if commissioners try to impose restrictions, Allen suggested they adjourn before voting and hold another public hearing.

“That’s what got us in trouble at the meeting in circuit court,” Allen said, referring to a last-minute change during a moratorium vote this spring to disallow two wind developers to continue with projects.

“Any change you make has to be based on reason,” he said.

Commissioner Rich Swartzendruber, who previously served on the planning commission and attended recent meetings, questioned why someone would, without an interest to find out why changes were made, “pick apart” and seek changes to the ordinance.

Commissioner John Bodis said he would support the recommendation from planners.

The board may not be able to make a decision until October, however, as Smith said he anticipates Acoustics By Design returning the draft ordinance by the end of August. Planners would then need to schedule a public hearing before voting and sending the ordinance to commissioners.