Multiple landowners in rural Isabella County have signed lease agreements for about 36,000 acres in total with at least one alternative energy company exploring the feasibility of building a wind farm across seven townships.
Property owners in the deal include County Commissioners George Green and Frank Engler, who have contracts with to Apex Clean Energy not because of who they are, but because they happen to own land in a desired area, said Albert Jonewaard, the company’s public affairs manager.
“We chose the area not because who lived there, but because of its high wind resource,” Jonewaard said.
Once Apex picked Isabella County as a potential home for a wind farm that could encompass land in Deerfield, Denver, Isabella, Nottawa, Vernon, Wise and Gilmore Townships, a steering committee negotiated a contract for land owners interested in leasing property and began acquiring land last year.
The wind energy company is in a development phase, acquiring potential acres and entering holding agreements that pay $6 per acre per year while Apex explore the land’s potential.
The goal is about 10,000 acres per 100 megawatts of power – so for the 400 megawatt proposal, the company is looking for at least 40,000 acres of land, Jonewaard said.
For George Green and his 130 acres contracted to Apex, that equals $780 this year.
Despite the relatively low dollar amount, some have accused Green and Engler of influencing county government for their own benefit.
“It irks me,” Green said. “Wind energy was already approved (by Isabella County) seven or eight years ago. What we did was make the ordinance stricter. What did I do for financial gain for George Green? Nothing. I didn’t help myself.”
Last month Green and his fellow commissioners approved changes to an already-existing wind ordinance that tightened regulations on set-backs and decibel levels should turbines be built in the county.
The ordinance was revisited not only because of Apex’s interest in the county, but because in total four wind energy companies have shown interest in the area over the last two years, said Time Nieport, Isabella County’s community development coordinator.
“The idea to update the language in the ordinance came from the planning commission,” Neiport said. “Our job is to provide guidelines for allowable use of land that will both benefit and protect the community as a whole.”
Neiport said Apex and other wind energy companies – and even one solar farm company – each called the county to first ask about the ordinances regarding their industry.
The amendment updated the language of the regulations in the county and tightened the rules after commissioners heard community input on noise levels and where the turbines may be placed on property, Neiport said.
Although Apex is acquiring contracts to lease land and has a development plan with a target construction completion in Isabella County of 2020, the company has not applied for any permits and the ordinance was not influenced by Apex or any other company, he said.
Green said he didn’t abstain from the vote on the ordinance because he didn’t have a conflict of interest; the amendment wasn’t regarding a particular company and he didn’t stand to profit from the changes.
“I’ve been a county commissioner for a number of years. We’re a rural community and I know probably 90 percent of the people who live here,” Green said. “They expect me to vote, not to abstain, and that’s all I did – vote to tighten up the ordinance.”
For Green and the other farm property owners in the county, the initial land agreements with Apex are not unlike oil exploration agreements in years past.
Over the next months, Apex will use equipment to measure wind speed and other factors on some of the land to determine the feasibility and scope of a turbine operation.
If the project moves forward and is operational those with contracts stand to earn much more per acre once turbines are generating energy, per agreements negotiated between a committee of Isabella County farm and other property owners and Apex.
Green said it reminds him of past incidents when oil and gas companies have paid to determine if a piece of property may support an oil rig; on his own property he’s held nine or 10 such contracts since 1970, though none have yielded a drilling operation.
“Wind energy is coming,” Green said. “This won’t be the first time farmers stand to gain from energy development. Each of the property owners pay taxes and we ought to have a right do what we want with that property within the zoning laws.”
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