HURON COUNTY – After two years of crafting regulations without full knowledge of the will of county residents, the Huron County Board of Commissioners and Planning Commission has been issued a mandate by voters: Enough is enough.
Voters in county-zoned townships opted nearly two-to-one to reject two wind-energy overlay districts previously approved by commissioners. Additionally, Lincoln and Sand Beach township voters opted for stricter regulations, ones wind energy developers have said will effectively make development in those townships cost-restrictive.
Members of the Huron County Wind Resistance, which led the petition drives to force the referendum votes, were jubilant as results rolled into the Huron County Building Tuesday night.
Lincoln Township resident and resistance member Denise Rice rushed up the lobby steps and threw her arms around fellow resister Robert Gaffke.
“We did it,” she exclaimed.
Husband, Don Rice, estimated he and his wife put over 7,000 miles on their car circulating petitions and campaigning for the cause.
“She’s lucky she doesn’t have bare knuckles, knocking on so many doors,” he said.
While Denise Rice said she believed about 80 percent of people they spoke with were against more wind turbines in Huron County,
“We knew the people were saying this, but we just didn’t know how the vote would turn out,” Don Rice said.
County-wide, 63 percent of voters rejected a proposal by DTE Energy that would have created a wind-energy overlay district in portions of Bloomfield, Dwight, Lincoln and Sigel townships. The overlay was adopted by commissioners on Oct. 25, 2016, and petitioners immediately set to work collecting signatures for the referendum vote.
A proposal by Huron Wind LLC also fell by 63 percent. The overlay would have allowed the developers to site turbines in Sigel and Sherman Townships.
Huron Wind planned the park to extend into Sand Beach Township, which is self-zoned. In a vote of 413 to 80, voters there overwhelmingly confirmed their township board’s ordinance amendments that impose more restrictive turbine siting regulations.
Voters in Lincoln Township, in a vote of 174 to 124, approved the township board’s decision to create a township planning commission and remove the township from county zoning.
Carl Duda, a county planning commission member and Lincoln Township resident, said the creation of a township planning commission will give residents a better opportunity to have their voices heard by those whose decisions shape the landscape.
He said townships lost that connection in the ’70s, when the County Board of Supervisors was replaced by the County Board of Commissioners. Prior to the formation of the county board, each township’s supervisor attended a monthly meeting, where they were one of 28 representing the wants and needs of each individual township.
“Any issue that was going on, it would be taken care of,” Duda said.
Gaffke said members of Huron County Wind Resistance feel like they came out on top in a David-and-Goliath–type battle.
“God’s bigger than it all. God’s got a bigger checkbook,” Gaffke said.
He said while the energy companies hired public relations firms to blanket the community with advertising, the group did much of its campaigning in person and used handcrafted signs, designed based on four 4×4-foot plywood advertisements crafted by longtime wind critic Louis J. Colletta. The signs were first used when Meade Township rejected a DTE wind energy proposal with a referendum vote in May, 2015.
The Rices helped construct the signs, and Don posted one on private property immediately next door to the township’s hall.
“I had to measure it to make sure it was 100 yards away,” he said with a laugh.
The group constructed 27, most of which were built by Rick Stien, a man who Gaffke said represents the resistance well.
“He’s just an old farmer who turned down a wind lease,” Gaffke said. “You can’t buy us.
Denise Rice said she is grateful to those who fought wind energy development when it was new to the area. Many of those people have grown weary of public demonstrations, but they continue to help behind the scenes.
“If someone hadn’t shown us what to do, we wouldn’t have had a referendum. We wouldn’t have had a vote. They would have just started building,” she said.
The resistance also found help from the Interstate Informed Citizen’s Coalition (IICC), which lobbies for stricter wind turbine siting regulations at the state level.
IICC director Kevon Martis said the election results not only send a message to local leaders, but also to state lawmakers.
“This vote was about more than just two local wind projects. This was a referendum on Gov. Snyder’s just-enacted 15-percent renewable energy mandate. And he lost big. Huron County has had enough. And not just Huron County. In the past six months, voters in Tuscola and Sanilac counties have rejected another project by NextEra, as well as one each by Invenergy and Exelon Wind. The bottom line is that wind development is no longer welcome in Michigan’s best wind resource region – the Thumb. That’s because the most effective ‘anti-wind’ campaign sign is a 50-story tall turbine in the township next door. Given a choice, no reasonable person would prefer to have one 1,000 feet from their bedroom window,” Martis said in a statement.
DTE representative Matt Wagner agreed the vote results sent the company a message, but said the company will have a continued presence in the county.
“Our eyes are not going to be taken off Huron County from an operations standpoint,” he said. “We’re going to continue to operate (turbines) safely, reliably and cost effectively. We’re proud of the fact that it’s significant and highly reliable clean energy.”
He said the company plans to take a step back and evaluate their next steps, but all energy companies will be working to meet the state’s newly enacted 15-percent renewable mandate.
Wagner said the legislation mandates the increase happen by 2021, which is a strong driver behind DTE’s pursuit of renewable energy projects.
Martis said his group expects DTE and other wind energy developers to take the fight to Lansing and ask lawmakers to seize the right of local municipalities to regulate turbine siting.
“We intend to fight that effort with all our strength,” Martis said. “We are more determined than ever to stop this failed wind energy mandate that divides communities, raises utility rates, doubles DTE share prices and brings dubious environmental value. Lansing should do the right thing and end the 15-percent renewable energy mandate immediately.”