BAD AXE – In a decision that came to form before the meeting even started, county planners Wednesday night unanimously agreed to table any action for DTE Energy’s plan to build 50 to 70 more wind turbines in Huron County.
Close to 200 people packed into the Huron County Expo Center for the first public glimpse at the project. About 30 spoke during public comment and Planning Chair Clark Brock read as many letters from people who couldn’t attend. Opinions were split in support and opposition.
But because a flood of information and letters arrived just before the meeting, member Carl Duda made a motion to table a decision. Brock agreed, saying he would prefer more time for review rather than push any action.
Brock says planners won’t take action on the project at their April 6 meeting. They instead hope to set a special meeting at a later date to make a decision, which will be a recommendation forwarded to county commissioners for the final say.
A planning area covers more than 39,000 acres and 61 square miles across four townships: 22,080 in Lincoln and 5,760 each in Sigel, Dwight and Bloomfield. DTE says it expects the currently unnamed project to be between 100 and 150 megawatts and 50 to 70 wind turbines. The utility has 21,000 acres under contract for wind development with about 100 landowners and is talking with other landowners.
A ‘curious’ letter from Lincoln Township
Part of the decision to table any action was based not only on the amount of letters planners received before the meeting, but one in particular that Secretary Jeffery Krohn called “curious.”
Dated March 16, it’s addressed to the county’s Building and Zoning office, has a Lincoln Township letterhead and is signed by board members.
The letter’s two sentences read: “We feel that Huron County has done our part as far as Green Energy. We feel that no additional turbines should be allowed in Huron County.”
What raised a few eyebrows: Lincoln Township Trustee John Wisneski, Treasurer Patricia Weber and Constable Dennis Weber all have 2009 wind leases or contracts on file with DTE in Lincoln Township, records from the county Register of Deeds Office show.
“Clearly, some of the Lincoln board trustees are landowners who hold DTE contracts,” DTE Project Manager Matt Wagner said, adding each has received regular renewal contract payments.
“And perhaps with the exception of this year’s payments, which just went out literally within the last week, they cashed those checks. It was a surprise to us. We’ve reached out to these folks. We obviously want to understand better their situation.”
Lincoln officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Other officials with wind energy leases or contracts
Lincoln Township officials aren’t the only ones with a say in the project who have contracts with developers.
According to records on file at the county Register of Deeds Office, three county planners have a lease, easement or agreement with a wind energy developer: Brock, with RES Americas as part of its incoming Deerfield project; Secretary Jeffery Krohn, as part of a project in Oliver Township; and member Joel Weber, who has multiple wind power documents on file with Heritage Energy as part of its Big Turtle project.
At the township level, Bloomfield Clerk Delphine Pawlowski has wind leases or contracts on file with DTE and Heritage Energy dated 2013 and 2015.
In Sigel, Trustees Brad Essenmacher and Bernard Sweeney both have wind leases or contracts on file with DTE dated 2012.
Dwight is the only one where none of its officials have a lease, easement or agreement with a developer on file.
North Huron Schools says yes
A letter dated March 29 from North Huron Schools and signed by Superintendent Martin Prout states DTE supports the school’s students financially having donated money to the FFA program and that wind energy revenue “flows through the Huron ISD and supports all of us in the form of the countywide Special Education (millage).”
“The Wind Overlay Project would only increase that amount and support the neediest of students,” the letter states.
The letter states DTE employee Rich Benson has given “unmeasurable value” to students, having established and expanded a cross country program. Benson has given several students a purpose and sense of belonging, helping them to want to stay in school, according to the letter.
What those in townships sited for the project say
Some were curt with their comments, like Arnold Schuman of Sigel Township, who drew applause after calling the project a scam.
Harry Collings of Lincoln Township felt different.
“If we want windmills, we expect the zoning commission to listen to us,” Collings said.
Duane Guza of Sigel Township suggested planting turbines on state land.
Craig Lehrke of Lincoln Township says there is a line the county will cross between development and overdevelopment.
“And I think we’ve reached that point,” Lehrke said.
He says he doesn’t get asked to sign a lease because he doesn’t own a lot of acres. There are few spots one can photograph a sunset in the county without a turbine in the background, Lehrke said, adding he doesn’t want to live in an industrial area.
Richard Maurer, Sigel Township supervisor, says he supports the project. According to Maurer, 70 percent of the township’s taxable value comes from substations, ITC power lines and the 24 wind turbines in Sigel.
“It’s big money that comes to Sigel,” he said, adding he “doesn’t like sending people to Iraq to fight for oil.”
A woman who identified herself as Elizabeth and a DTE employee who lives in Dwight Township says she’s lived in the county 23 years. She says wind turbines produce three times the energy of the former power plant in Harbor Beach and “we’re not burning coal.”
Jon Elliott of Pigeon, who earlier in March told officials he “lives in hell” near the 44-turbine Pheasant Run project, said the five turbines across the road cast blinking red lights toward his home at night when he watches television.
Nancy Krohn of Elkton echoed Elliott earlier in March, saying “it’s a living nightmare around here now” and that Huron County residents cannot afford any more turbines.
Feeling her past concerns fell on deaf ears, Krohn told a fictional story Wednesday night starring the “Turbinator” – a play on the famous “Terminator” movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The “Turbinator,” by Krohn’s description, is a fire-breathing monster that residents let come to the area to take over and eat up land.
“This may be a little oversimplified,” Krohn said of the metaphor, “but I think you get the point of the story.”
Nick Shantz of Cass City has a different view from working as a technician on wind turbines. He says he’s alongside people who graduated from Thumb high schools and the job keeps him in the Thumb.
Craig MacPhee says he owns land in Verona Township and Sebewaing and operates a business that cleans wind turbines across the country that has employed 30 people from Huron County since 2008.
Wagner says not all would agree, but wind projects have made a “profound positive impact” in the community.
Several DTE representatives spoke of the benefits: tax revenue, landowner payments, job creation, clean energy.
And, to dispel a “long list of fears not supported by facts,” Wagner says he submitted a list to planners citing peer-reviewed studies that show no scientific or medical evidence to support health problems stemming from wind projects. He says “multiple, rigorous peer-reviewed studies in the U.S. and Canada continue to support no impact on property values or in fact increased property values by wind projects.”
In light of recent turbine blade failures and a turbine that fell in Oliver Township: “As farmers know, equipment sometimes breaks,” Wagner said. But that’s why there is a safety fall zone dictated by zoning setbacks, he said.
For project approval, DTE says planners must consider three things: that sufficient wind energy resource exists; wind development is of interest to a majority of landowners in the area; and that the land is mainly agriculturally zoned. DTE says it has met these requirements.
County attorney: ‘It’s not that simple’
County attorney Stephen Allen says it’s the most critical time in any project to get things right.
Tallying comments from the hearing, “we’re about equally divided,” Allen said.
“Because of this, it is imperative we get it right,” he said. “That shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
He says if DTE meets ordinance requirements, planners should give an approving recommendation to county commissioners.
But the decision hinges on more than the three requirements DTE cited.
“It’s not quite that simple,” Allen said.
Allen cited various zoning ordinances that developers must meet for the project and suggested planners ask DTE to also look at Huron County’s master plan (one example he cited: “It’s not just any agricultural district; it’s an appropriate place within the agricultural district.”)