A Bridgehampton Township resident says township officials voted on ordinance changes favorable to a wind farm project even as those same officials stood to gain from leases they had with the energy company.
Roger Knight feels township officials shouldn’t have voted on the windmill zoning ordinance changes because of their leases with Exelon, a company with plans to construct 68 windmills across three Sanilac County townships.
“It’s the wrong way of doing business,” Knight said. “There’s nothing fair about it.”
Bridgehampton Township officials say the ordinance changes benefited the whole community, not just the board members with signed Exelon leases.
And they said if everyone on the board with a conflict of interest recused themselves from voting, there’d be too few left to vote.
“From a logistics standpoint, if you were to excuse yourself for conflict of interest from the board level, that would not have left a quorum,” Bridgehampton Township Supervisor Michael Haggerty said.
“This was an ordinance that covered the entire township. It wasn’t just about me or my property. If it was, I would consider that a conflict of interest.”
Wind farm triggers changes in zoning ordinances
The ongoing conflict in Bridgehampton Township has unfolded over several planning commission and township board meetings. Officials have been discussing allowable distances between windmills and surrounding property lines and structures – setback rules that likely would impact Exelon plans to construct 68 turbines in Bridgehampton, Custer and Marion townships.
Exelon spokeswoman Kristen Otterness said the windmill development still is in the permitting process.
She said there is no firm timeline as to when the company hopes to raise the turbines, but the effort to bring the wind farm to the area started in 2014.
“It would be this year, but it all depends on the permitting process,” Otterness said.
The company has 47 wind projects in 10 states, six of those projects being in Michigan. The farms are capable of generating about 1,500 megawatts of electricity. The other Michigan wind farms are in Ubly, Minden City, Elkton and Ithaca.
Over the course of several planning commission meetings in 2015, windmill ordinances were discussed again and again, according to meeting minutes.
In a May 2015 letter to the planning commission, Haggerty stated that proposed setback distances were problematic to wind companies like Exelon. In the letter, Haggerty asked the planning commission to reconsider the distance.
“The wind companies are concerned that the increased distances are very limiting,” Haggerty wrote in the May 29 letter.
“… Using the proposed changes makes it almost impossible to find the space needed for windmills on many parcels.”
Despite that letter, Haggerty said the planning commission and township board eventually voted in August 2015 to increase the setback from inhabited structures from 1,000 feet to 1,320 feet, and create a setback of 550 feet from non-participating property lines.
Knight’s lawyer, Joshua Nolan, questioned those numbers and whether those ordinances changes were even legal.
He said the votes – whether they increased or decreased the setbacks – never should have happened at the planning commission level or at the township board level, as nearly half the members on each board held leases with Exelon.
“Even if they had voted to provide greater protections, which I would dispute wholeheartedly, they still can’t do so with a conflict of interest,” Nolan said.
Leases create conflicts of interest
At least three of seven planning commission members – Diana Wisienski, Alan Innes, and Allen Detgen – have leases with Exelon.
Two of five township trustees – Alan Innes and Dianne Detgen – also have leases with Exelon.
Haggerty said his lease is with another wind company, but he believes Exelon may take over the lease. If Exelon took over Haggerty’s lease, Haggerty would be the third board of trustees member with an Exelon lease.
Nolan addressed a letter to the township board in late December, requesting the board consider the planning commission and board votes pertaining to the wind farm ordinance changes void.
“We’ve invited them to address this themselves and do right by their citizenry,” Nolan said. “If they do not we’ll have to look to the courts to find justice.
“It’s obviously our preference that they handle this internally rather than forcing us into litigation.”
Nolan’s letter also alleges Haggerty, “in a truly Machiavellian maneuver,” handpicked new planning commission members in June who he knew were Exelon lease holders.
Nolan said he believes the township board could have avoided further conflicts of interest by appointing planning commission members without an Exelon lease.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that they can find at least seven people in Bridgehampton Township who have not signed a lease,” Nolan said.
Township officials weigh in
Township officials on the board and planning commission are split when it comes to whether or not a vote on the ordinances should have taken place.
“If you have all the people with leases abstain you don’t have a quorum to vote,” said Alan Innes, the township board treasurer and planning commission member who also holds an Exelon lease.
“So what’s the alternative? It is a quandary, isn’t it?”
But Katherine Kelly, a trustee for the township, believes there were alternatives available to the township. She voted against the ordinance changes in August 2015.
“I heard too much opposition from residents,” Kelly said. “I think the windmills coming should have gone on the ballot for our residents.”
Diana Wisienski, Kelly’s mother and a member of the township planning commission, said she has a lease with Exelon, but knew at the time of voting that she wouldn’t be getting a windmill on her property. Because a windmill wasn’t planned for her property, Wisienski said she felt free to vote on the ordinance changes.
But Wisienski isn’t happy about Exelon passing up her land in its positioning of windmills, excluding her from increased lease payments.
“It just seemed to me the rich farmers are getting the wind towers and the poor guys who could have used a little help weren’t getting one,” Wisienski said. She said two Exelon representatives visited her to discuss her disappointment.
“They said don’t be discouraged because there’s a chance that when this project is done there will be another.”
Allen Detgen, a member of the planning commission who holds a lease with Exelon, said he voted on the ordinance amendments to protect his property rights. Detgen’s wife Diane is a trustee on the township board. Detgen said he never considered whether their Exelon lease constituted a conflict of interest for him or his wife.
“I hadn’t even thought about it,” Allen Detgen said. “It never even dawned on me that it would have been a problem.”
While the ordinance changes are set, it likely will be at least a month before the township begins discussions on a special land use permit for Exelon, Haggerty said.
Haggerty said there is nothing on the township board’s Thursday agenda regarding windmills but, he said, Knight has requested to address the board.
Knight said he hopes the township board and planning commission reconsiders its past votes and its future involvement in decisions impacting the project.
“A project of this size is going to affect this community for years and years and years,” Knight said.
“I have issues with these windmills for safety issues, aesthetics and the mess they’re going to leave 30 years from now. My kids and grandkids are going to be left looking at these things and having to pay to have them dismantled.”