NORTH BRANCH TWP. – About 200 people gathered Tuesday at the Rebel Ranch horse farm in northern Lapeer County to talk wind turbines – some expressing opposition, others delivering stern warnings about potential impact, and many simply to learn.
Eight people spoke at the event hosted by North Branch Township’s Traci Martin, including state Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Williams Township (in Bay County), along with others who have experience with wind turbines from around the state.
Statements prepared by Gary Roy, chairman of the Lapeer County Board of Commissioners, and Kevin Daley, a state senate candidate, also were read to the group.
Martin said she organized the event quickly after The County Press was the first to report on Oct. 8 that property owners in northeast Lapeer County recently have signed 20 agreements with DTE Energy Co. that are specific to “wind energy development.”
A company spokesman confirmed DTE is in “the very early stages of talking to area landowners about a possible project at some point five to 10 years from now.”
Concurrently, several area townships have begun the process of adopting new wind ordinances.
Since Tuesday’s meeting, Martin said her “phone has not stopped ringing, texts, Facebook messages…dozens of emails, all from concerned citizens that want more information and are worried turbines are invading their community.”
A Facebook group specific to dialogue about the topic of wind turbines also has started called Lapeer Co. Citizen’s WindWatch.
Cindy Hecht, senior communications specialist, DTE, provided The County Press with a statement when asked about the meeting.
“As a transparent and accessible partner in communities where we live and serve around the state, DTE is eager to engage with local residents and provide them with an opportunity to have their questions and concerns addressed. Every community deserves to hear a balanced representation about wind farm developments in an atmosphere that encourages respectful dialogue.
“However, our experience has shown that forums such as this recent meeting often do not create an environment conducive to a balanced discussion on wind park development,” Hecht wrote.
At Tuesday’s meeting, speakers addressed several common themes, including what they called a “divisiveness” created in communities where there are people for and against wind turbines.
“I’m very sorry that this wind project has come to your community because I know what this will look like five years down the road,” said Kevon Martis, a former planning commissioner in Lenawee County who now runs the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition Inc., a nonprofit that is dedicated to raising public awareness of the potential impacts of wind turbines.
Martis said he has seen the impact in his community.
“Eight years later, I drive through my hometown… and we still see ‘he was for it, he was against, he was for it, he was against’ instead of Joe, Frank, Bob and Carl,” Martis said.
Glenn recalled attending a wind energy-related meeting in Caro in May.
“The thing I remember most is the school board member who got the biggest applause of the night when he said ‘This will tear apart the social fabric of your community,’” Glenn said.
The speakers generally tried to give area residents direction in what to do with their concerns – namely, to take action.
Advice consistently given, for example, was that citizens should get involved in local meetings where officials are crafting ordinances related to wind.
“You need to attend your meetings, you need to find out what’s going on, you need to educate yourselves – there’s plenty of stuff online, good and bad – on what a wind turbine is, the noise it can make…” said Chris Martinelli, chairman of the Bridgehampton Township (Sanilac County) planning commission.
Ordinances lay out details like how loud wind turbines can be (decibel limits) and how close they can be to other structures (setbacks), among other things.
Burnside is the closest to having an up-to-date ordinance regarding wind energy developments, with Burlington and North Branch townships in the early stages.
The Burnside Township board meets Monday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m., and the planning commission plans to hold a second public hearing on Nov. 7 about proposed changes to its ordinance regarding wind energy projects.
Burlington Township doesn’t have a planning commission and the township board next meets Nov. 14 at 8 p.m.
North Branch Township has a planning commission meeting scheduled for Oct. 24 at 5 p.m. The next regular board meeting is set for Thursday, Nov. 9, at 10 a.m.
“Most people I spoke with are not anti-wind, we are anti ‘irresponsible’ wind ordinances that are destroying our communities,” Martin said.
Leo Sonck, supervisor of Bridgehampton Township, told the group how to put ordinance changes to a township vote “if it’s not strong enough, as citizens, to your liking.”
As Sonck explained, once a planning commission develops and recommends an ordinance, it will be sent to the county’s planning commission, which has 30 days to review it. If it doesn’t happen in that timeframe, it equates to approval, Sonck said.
The recommended ordinance then must be approved by the full township board and subsequently published as a public notice in the newspaper.
Once it’s published, Sonck said, residents have seven days to file a “notice of intent” to file a referendum petition with the township clerk. That’s when the 30-day clock starts ticking on collecting enough signatures to get it on the ballot, Sonck said, adding that the number of signatures required equates to 15 percent of the number of voters in the most recent gubernatorial election.
“It gives you the power to get it out to a vote of the people to decide if you approve or disapprove of the ordinance,” Sonck said.
Before getting to that point, Martinelli said the biggest obstacles communities can face are “apathy, a lack of knowledge, and any possible conflicts.”
Potential conflicts of interest, in fact, were another common theme on Tuesday.
Glenn said he plans to introduce legislation if no one else does to “tighten up and put teeth into our state conflict of interest law regarding local governments.”
“Because it is the case now that the companies that want to erect the industrial wind facilities will go in and get wind leases with members of the planning commission or the township board, who then if they vote yes and it becomes law, they themselves make a personal profit from it,” Glenn said. “If I did that in Lansing they’d string me up, the newspapers would be scathing, they’d run me out of town on a rail.”
“We’re not talking about a theoretical conflict of interest for a class of people,” Glenn added. “We’re talking about members of the planning commission or township board who, if they vote for a wind ordinance and it prevails and it becomes law, they get $1,000 (or) $1,500 a month.”
The County Press attempted to obtain lists of all elected and appointed officials in Burnside, Burlington, and North Branch townships.
Calls and emails to officials in Burnside and North Branch were not returned.
At least one Burlington Township official confirmed being approached by DTE as a potential leaseholder.
Chris Howland, treasurer of Burlington Township, said he was asked by a DTE representative if he wanted to lease land for wind energy-related purposes. Howland, who attended Tuesday’s meeting as a representatives of the Burlington Township board but did not speak, said he declined.
Going forward, Martis claimed people should expect wind companies to “try to make this an argument about tax revenue, about green jobs, about saving the planet from CO2 emissions.”
“But the truth is, in zoning, all we care is that you’re trying to build a large noisy structure,” he said. “I don’t care if that large noisy structure sucks oil out of the ground, I don’t care if it sucks coal out of the ground, I don’t care if it turns pig ears into silk purses…large noisy structures are something that we know are incompatible with people in quiet, residential places.”
The 20 DTE “wind energy development” easement agreements recorded by the Lapeer County Register of Deeds were signed between June 26 and Sept. 26, and encompass a total of 60 parcels in Burlington, Burnside, and North Branch townships.
The majority of the 40-year agreements (with an option for an additional 20 years) are for land generally between the villages of Clifford and North Branch, though some are east and southeast of the village of North Branch.
On its website, DTE says “Wind development can require up to five years for siting, zoning, feasibility and environmental studies, permits and construction. The exact timeframe required to complete a wind project is dictated by site and project specifics.”
Projects vary in size due to factors like area of land available, and available electrical system capacity, the DTE website explains.
The company also outlines the 12 steps of bringing a wind turbine project – oftentimes called a “wind farm” – into operations.
The first step identified is “acquiring easements” as the company has been doing since June 26 in northern Lapeer County.
“As the state’s largest investor in renewable energy, DTE Energy has collaboratively engaged with communities across Michigan to drive investments of $2 billion in wind energy since 2009, creating hundreds of jobs for residents and a local tax revenue for communities while delivering reliable, affordable and clean energy for our 2.2 million Michigan customers,” Hecht said in a statement to The County Press.
After several recent battles in courtrooms and via elections in Tuscola, Huron, and Sanilac counties, however, Martis said it makes sense for companies like DTE to look at new locations like northern Lapeer County.
Currently, there are between 600 and 700 wind turbines in the state’s Thumb region, and a total of 900 statewide (not all are owned by DTE).
“They’re here because…they won’t have them in the Thumb anymore,” Martis said, noting that the wind in northern Lapeer County is similar to parts of Gratiot and Isabella counties, where wind farms already exist.
But why are electric providers interested in wind turbine projects to begin with?
In early October, DTE Energy Regional Manager Carla Gribbs addressed the Lapeer City Commission to thank city officials for their cooperation and “partnership” to develop two solar array fields in the city that went online in May.
Gribbs noted that DTE plans to reduce carbon emissions by 85 percent by 2050. The company has announced plans to stop burning coal to power its electricity generating plants, and instead use natural gas and increase production of solar and other alternatives.
Such alternatives also include wind turbines that can be up to 499 feet tall – high enough to effectively capture enough of the wind’s energy (converted to power) to make it an economically viable option for electric providers like DTE that also face pressure to produce 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2021, per state law.
The topic of renewable energy sources repeatedly came up during the meeting on Tuesday.
Glenn, who announced he is running for the state senate seat currently held by Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville, told the crowd he opposed the 15-percent mandate. Glenn currently is chairman of the house energy policy committee.
“I voted against that increase of the 15-percent mandate and later this year, or early next…someone will introduce a bill to repeal the 15 percent mandate altogether – and if nobody else does I will,” Glenn said, adding that those in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting would be able to provide testimony on the issue.
Martis said the issue relates to DTE looking at places like Lapeer County because the mandate essentially guarantees the company millions of dollars in revenue.
“Because they’re guaranteed, by the legislation, regulated profits on their capital investments – they will make over 20 years, $125 million guaranteed profits on a 100-megawatt wind project,” Martis said. “And with the production tax credits in place, they’ll make another $80 million in federal subsidies on top of that.”
“But they’ll give you a few million bucks over the course of 20 years to make you feel good about it,” Martis said.
Area residents who attended the meeting Tuesday generally said they were there to learn. When speakers addressed the crowd, in fact, there was little to no talking as attendees seemed to hang on to every word. Most stayed for the entire two hours.
Duan Castle, of North Branch Township, attended the meeting.
“I’ve been reading up on it, the good and the bad, and just wanted to get more information,” she said, adding that she is “against it.”
“I don’t want to see them all over,” she said. “It’s not attractive.”
Allone Coddin, also of North Branch Township, said she’s trying to learn more, too.
“I just wanted to get more information,” she said. “See what they have to say.”
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