A Sanilac County resident wants to halt an energy company’s wind farm project – and he plans to do so one signature at a time.
In late January, Steven Thompson started collecting signatures for a referendum to put an ordinance amendment to a vote of the people.
The amendment – already approved by Marion Township’s planning commission and board of trustees – would expand the township wind overlay district to accommodate an Exelon wind farm project.
“I want to stop it at least temporarily so we can get educated on it and have a voice in it,” Thompson said.
“If it isn’t stopped now, come spring, once the frost laws are up, they’ll be moving dirt. And then we won’t ever stop them.”
Exelon has plans to install 68 windmills across three townships: Marion, Bridgehampton, and Custer.
The project’s already made waves in Bridgehampton Township, where residents allege members of the planning commission and board made ordinance amendments favorable to the wind farm while holding leases with wind energy companies.
An almost identical situation has developed in Marion Township, said Jon Block, a Marion Township planning commission member.
Marion Township mulls wind farm approvals
Block said two of five board of trustee members hold contracts with Exelon, and three of five planning commission members hold contracts with the wind company.
Despite the perceived conflicts of interest, Block said the planning commission voted on an ordinance change to the overlay district Jan. 7, which was approved by the board Jan. 20.
That same day, immediately following the board meeting, the planning commission met and approved Exelon’s special land use permit.
Block said he and another planning commission member – both of whom do not have leases – abstained from the vote on the special land use permit. The other three planning commission members with Exelon leases voted to approve it. One of the commission members, Verne Dumaw, voted to approve the permit over the phone from Florida.
“We had consulted with the lawyer and were informed that was perfectly legal,” Arnold McVittie, township supervisor, said of the telephonic vote.
McVittie said the township lawyer also informed the board and planning commission that their Exelon leases did not constitute a conflict of interest.
Tom Roberts, a 20-year planning commission member who has an Exelon lease, said it’s difficult to find an issue that wouldn’t in some way benefit a planning commission member due to the small size of the township.
“Everybody has a tie to something that we vote on,” Roberts said. “You can’t get anybody else to do it. There’s an election in November if they want to change it.”
Residents seek a vote on ordinance changes
Block said he hopes a successful referendum will allow residents more of a voice in the wind project zoning and approval process.
“Our goal is not to stop the project, but delay it to give the community time to reset the zoning … to protect our citizens,” Block said.
“We’re not going to deal with a company that wants to trample on us.”
Thompson said he’s collected nearly enough signatures for the referendum and plans to hand them into the township within a week.
Thompson said, besides what appears to be a “strong conflict of interest,” the issue also deserves to be fully understood by residents affected by the project.
Based on preliminary plans, Thompson estimates he’ll have 27 windmills within two miles of his home.
“There’s questions that haven’t been answered,” Thompson said. “There’s tactics that have been used that I don’t necessarily think are right.
“I think it’s got to be stopped and at least slowed down and right now this is the only way to do it.”
Roberts said all of the notifications required of the township prior to a public meeting were placed according to law. He said he doesn’t understand why people are choosing to protest the project at the end of the approval process.
“We had three public hearings last year and nobody showed up to say they were against it,” Roberts said. “How did we know there was any opposition to it?”
Dumaw, a fellow planning commission member, agreed.
“We’ve been dealing with the wind mills and wind ordinances and zoning for 10 to 12 years and all of a sudden now it’s a big uproar,” Dumaw said.
“All of a sudden, they’re up in arms because we didn’t knock on their doors and say there’s a meeting.”
Bridgehampton officials consider support, opposition
In Bridgehampton Township, residents are waiting to see what develops as their elected officials mull the approval of a special land use permit for Exelon.
“Each meeting, we’re having more and more people from the township showing up, they’re becoming more aware, they’re becoming a little more educated, they’re beginning to speak up,” said resident Roger Knight. “So far, the township has turned a deaf ear.”
At least two of seven planning commission members in Bridgehampton have leases with Exelon.
Two of five township trustees also have leases with Exelon. The township supervisor and another planning commission member also have leases with another wind company, but they expect Exelon to take over the lease.
Knight sent a letter through his lawyer, Joshua Nolan, to Bridgehampton officials in December asking them to reverse earlier changes to the township wind ordinance.
Knight reiterated his plea to stay the proceedings in a letter Feb. 10 from his lawyer to the township.
In the letter to the township’s lawyer, Timothy Wrathell, Nolan refutes Wrathell’s claims that the board members were not acting improperly.
“Because no permit has been issued and no construction has commenced, Exelon has no vested interest in any zoning classification at this time,” the letter reads. “Instead, Bridgehampton Township retains the ability to review its ordinance and to revise it where necessary, without the taint from the conflicts of interest outlined above.”
Michael Haggerty, township supervisor, said the board is listening to concerns from residents.
“I know that there’s been interest on the part of the board members as to what we could do to meet half way,” Haggerty said.
“The board isn’t shutting them out, but we’re also having to look at all the options and weigh everyone’s concerns – whether it’s pro or con.”
Knight said he hopes the case doesn’t go to court, as it will cost township residents money whether they win or lose. He said the controversy that’s developed around the issue is unfortunate.
“They end up pitting neighbor against neighbor and friend and against friend, and those feelings go on for years and years,” Knight said. “Those companies are just here to make a buck and they leave us with the mess.
“We just want the township board to listen to our voices and do the right thing, that’s all we’re asking.”
Residents express safety concerns
While concerns about conflicts of interest circulate in both townships, residents also have started to worry about the safety of the project.
Bridgehampton Township resident Chris Martinelli said he’s concerned about the safety risks the wind turbines pose.
Martinelli feels questions haven’t been answered satisfactorily concerning how wind turbine fires are handled, and how far a broken blade or ice can travel when flung from the turbine.
“They’re making decision on all of these residents’ lives,” Martinelli said. “…They’re putting my family in harm’s way.”
Carsonville Fire Chief Don Rickett III said the Carsonville Fire Department covers roughly half of Bridgehampton. Deckerville Fire Department covers the other half and Marion Township.
Rickett said rescue crews aren’t overly concerned about possible risks the turbine may pose. Rickett said he was told by Exelon that firefighters could respond to any structures, regardless of the fire’s distance from the windmill.
Windmill fires, however, are a different matter.
“In the event that it does catch fire, which is not very likely, we pretty much let it burn and stand back,” Rickett said.
Deckerville Fire Chief Tracy Hoff said he was given the same instruction about the existing windmills in Marion Township.
“Basically, what we’re going to do is just secure an area around it, and get a hold of the wind mill company,” Hoff said.
Exelon did not respond to emails from the Times Herald for comment.
Don Johnston, manager for the Sandusky City Airport, has also expressed concern about area windmill developments.
“Our airport sits right in the area of multiple townships that are already scheduled and applying for windmills,” Johnston said.
Johnston said the airport is applying for an instrument aided approach to the airport, but more windmills could snarl those plans.
“So far, the ones that are going up now are far enough away that they’re not going to hamper that approach,” Johnston said. “But we want to make sure in the future that none are going to.”
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