BAD AXE – As officials further debate the chapters of a new rule book for wind projects, the threat of litigation against the county is becoming a recurring concern.
In July, the attorney for the board of commissioners, Stephen Allen, cautioned that new wind energy regulations should be based on reason, rather than opinion, if the county is taken to court due to a restrictive ordinance.
The 22-page draft wind ordinance is almost triple the length of the 2010 version. It would increase wind turbine setbacks from property, public roads and power lines; limit turbine height; sets lengthy methodology for sound regulations; regulate shadow flicker; and prevent turbines from being sited within three miles of the Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay shorelines.
Wind developers say the proposed regulations are strict enough to zone turbines out of the county.
Officials say they were drafted with the health, safety and welfare of residents in mind, while balancing landowner rights for both those who do or do not want their land leased to developers for wind projects.
But, with the final decision resting in the hands of local leaders, weeding out political motives to focus on fact is something Bernie Creguer, vice-chair of the county planning commission, has emphasized.
“To have these setbacks, or any changes in this, there has to be facts to prove that it has to be done,” Creguer said. “And I’m not so sure we met that.”
Creguer was allotted time on the August planning commission agenda to discuss proposed regulations and questions from landowners.
“You have to go into this by cause and effect; everything you do, you have to be able to verify why you did it,” he said. “In the event that we are into litigation, can we defend this strong enough that we would win?”
Creguer said his concern derives mainly from the proposed setback increases lengthened by more than a football field compared to 2010 regulations.
Officials also are aware that Huron County’s future with wind energy could diminish if they pass the new rules.
“If these changes are adopted, it will reduce the number of potential wind turbines in a given area,” Joel Weber, a county planner, recently said, adding that it would violate rights of landowners who want turbines.
Planning Chair Clark Brock said the majority of the changes would do just that.
“May not reduce the megawatt-age, but it would reduce the number of turbines,” Brock said.
An example of that has already been seen: Geronimo Energy, as a result of axing turbines it had planned near the shoreline, slashed the project in half, opting for larger ones capable of more output. The three-mile shoreline setback isn’t regulated under the current ordinance, but the developer faced pressure from county and wildlife officials and residents to comply.
“They’ll go to bigger turbines (and) there will be less of them,” said member David Peruski.
Still, Weber thought the new rules would drive developers out of the county – a concern that Peruski said surfaced in 2010 when the county drafted wind regulations, yet “developers still came in.”
Whichever path officials choose, the county’s attorney has made public his advice.
“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,” Allen said in July. “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.”
However, at least one thing will be clear after it all: the county’s building and zoning department will be able to “get back to the basics of planning and zoning instead of wind all the time,” said Jeff Smith, department head.
That means clearing items that have sat on the agenda for a year or more – including working on a hazard mitigation plan, important to have for when disaster strikes (Think: tornado that touched down in Owendale on Aug. 2.), and an overhaul of the county’s master plan, which carves the framework for land use, zoning, economic development, public transportation and human services, last updated in 1993.
“It’s not that bad,” Peruski said.
“It is that bad,” Smith countered.
“We have items on our agenda that we need to get off,” Brock said.