ELLINGTON TWP. – The Ellington Township Planning Commission voted 3-2 Wednesday to keep the community’s wind ordinance intact – despite voting in favor of more strict requirements for wind turbines just one week earlier.
The motion to keep the ordinance intact was made by Ed Traster, appointed to the planning commission June 20 by Ellington Township Supervisor Duane Lockwood.
Lockwood recused himself in February from wind-related discussions and decisions at the level of board of trustees, and has had leases with wind project development companies since at least 2014, country records show.
Traster made the motion after calling some residents “selfish,” and stating that a lot of work went into the original, existing ordinance.
The motion took many by surprise, including George Mika, chairman, planning commission, who said he disagreed with not taking the time to refine the ordinance now and called the motion “totally unexpected.”
“I just think we’re taking two steps backwards,” Mika said. “After all this time, all of this effort, we decide now…to make no changes.
“I’m just devastated,” he said. “We’re at a meeting to talk about the language for our amendments and we get a motion instead to make no changes. Totally, totally unexpected. I don’t understand.”
Mika has referred several times in recent meetings to changes in Huron County’s wind ordinance that was amended in late 2015 to be more restrictive.
“We need to be able to look at what’s happening around us and learn from other situations that are similar to ours,” Mika said. “If we fail to do that, then we fail.”
Eugene Davidson, planning commission member, said he agreed.
“I didn’t spend nights and nights of reading just to throw it in the garbage,” he said.
Thom Bardwell, chairman, Tuscola County Board of Commissioners, said Thursday that the actions of the Ellington Township Planning Commission had a broader impact than the immediate issue at hand of the wind ordinance.
“Unfortunately, I’ve watched my township further divide itself,” said Bardwell, who represents the district that includes Ellington Township.
How Wednesday’s vote came to be
The planning commission has been tasked with reviewing the township’s wind ordinance as NextEra Energy Resources L.L.C. plans to build the $200 million Tuscola III “wind farm” in Ellington, Almer and Fairgrove townships.
Earlier this year, the commission was asked to review the overall ordinance and recommended it stay intact with no change – the same thing it did Wednesday.
Ellington Township’s current ordinance, adopted last year, allows 55 decibels of sound at the house and a setback of 1,320 feet from the home, compared to surrounding areas, including Huron County, where the ordinance doesn’t exceed 45 decibels with a setback restricted to at least 1,640 feet from the home.
On April 4, Ellington’s wind ordinance was sent back to the township planning commission a second time this year. The request from the board of trustees was different because planning commission members were asked to specifically review if changes should be made to setbacks – as opposed to reviewing the ordinance in general. A four-month moratorium was put in place at the same meeting.
At the next planning commission meeting, on May 26, Davidson made a motion to alter setbacks by 80 feet and lower the allowable level of noise (decibels). The motion died for lack of support and no other motions were made, meaning the commission took no action.
Still, the board of trustees said at its June 14 meeting that it wanted the planning commission to make a clear recommendation, one way or another.
To break a 2-2 deadlock on the planning commission, Lockwood appointed Traster to the commission at a June 20 board meeting.
The next day, the Ellington planning commission voted 4-1 to recommend setbacks to be three times the height of a wind turbine from a non-participating dwelling – a house where residents live and don’t have a deal with a wind company – and a sound level not to exceed 45 decibels from a non-participating dwelling.
Notice began going out for Wednesday’s special meeting on Monday.
According to the legal posting for the meeting on the township hall door, “the purpose of this Special Meeting will be for the Township Planning Commission to review the proposed wind energy zoning ordinance amendments and to set a public hearing to make a recommendation on those proposed zoning ordinance amendments.”
That went out the window, however, with Traster’s motion and the planning commission’s subsequent 3-2 vote to recommend keeping Ellington’s wind ordinance as is.
Traster made the motion to keep the ordinance intact.
He indicated the primary reason as being a lot of work went into the ordinance, and took the opportunity to offer his thoughts on the community in general.
“What is best for the Ellington Township? What is best for the people in this township? We’re being awful damn selfish,” Traster said. “If everybody was getting paid for those towers, they’d be happy. They’d be there with their hands out. But not everybody is.”
Traster also briefly spoke in general terms on the economic benefit of wind turbines to the area. He did not use any specific numbers nor mention that every wind development company with a project in Tuscola County has taken the county and several townships to court over taxes.
“I make a motion to not amend the zoning ordinance regarding wind energy,” Traster said. “We put three, four years into that.”
Julie Holmes, planning commission member, seconded the motion.
Joddy Ehrenberg, planning commission member, almost immediately called for a roll-call vote but township attorney Brian Garner reminded her that a discussion should be held.
“You’re right, we did spend a lot of time on this, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make it better,” said Mika. “And I thought from our last meeting, we had consensus that we could do that.
“I don’t know what’s changed from a week ago, but I’m disappointed that we’re talking about stepping back,” Mika said.
Mika pointed out that the proposed changes would not have prevented wind development in the community.
“I’m confident we can do this and still have (wind development) as part of our landscape in our community, but do it in a way that further protects the township,” Mika said. “So I don’t understand why we shouldn’t consider making some improvements to what we have.
“I don’t think it takes anything away from the work that was done previously, all we’re trying to do is further enhance what we have (in the ordinance),” Mika said. “And I feel strongly that we should do that.”
Mika tried to engage the board and asked if there was any kind of compromise that could be made.
“I just don’t see us going back all the way to what we currently have in our ordinance, but maybe we can make some concessions,” Mika said.
No one offered any sort of compromise.
Ehrenberg asked about additional public hearings that may be held before projects become reality. Township attorney Garner said the public could attend and voice any concerns after the wind developer files a “special land use” application.
“Just because we have a public hearing and somebody says ‘I don’t like that,’ it doesn’t mean we’re going to automatically say ‘We’re going to take care of that by doing this,’” Mika said. “We’re going to piecemeal this thing to death. I guarantee it.
“I would rather have something in our ordinance that says this applies to everyone, the same, equally,” Mika said.
When a member of the public asked a question seeking clarification of what a “special land use” application means, NextEra attorney Dan Ettinger objected to a discussion happening between the board and members of the audience. It was the only time anyone from NextEra or any of its representatives spoke during the meeting.
“The changes we’re talking about are a minimum,” Mika said. “They’re not…going to scuttle the program. I just don’t see it. So why don’t we do it?”
No one responded.
‘Something was going on’
The unexpected vote on Wednesday caught many by surprise, including Thom Bardwell, chairman, Tuscola County Board of Commissioners, who attended the meeting.
“You could tell by looking at the board members that something was going on,” Bardwell said during Thursday’s regular Tuscola County commissioners’ meeting.
Bardwell said Mika “really did an excellent job” of trying to convince the board to consider all information, adding he was surprised new information that’s come forward since Traster was involved in the original ordinance was “completely disregarded.”
During the public comment section of Wednesday’s meeting in Ellington, others were more direct.
“I’m extremely frustrated,” said George Pattullo, of Ellington Township. He praised Mika and Davidson for trying to make change on new information but expressed different feelings for Traster.
“I don’t know what happened, somebody bought you big time,” Pattullo said to Traster. “Something here is not aboveboard.”
Gregg Campbell, an Ellington Township resident who seeks to be elected to the township Board of Trustees, expressed similar frustration.
“This is an embarrassment to this township,” Campbell said. “The back-and-forth, back-and-forth can’t do anything…I’m really embarrassed for our township.”
The Ellington Township board of trustees is scheduled to meet July 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Ellington Township Hall.
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