Area citizens hit the North Branch Township planning commission with an onslaught of concerns and technical questions as officials introduced possible changes to an ordinance related to commercial wind turbines being considered for the area.
More than 20 people attended the commission’s regular monthly meeting held at 5 p.m., Tuesday (Oct. 24), at the North Branch Township Hall. A similar number turned out for the Burnside Township Board of Trustees monthly meeting just one day prior.
Many were ready to talk technical details of what is likely to become the township’s wind energy ordinance.
Planning Commission Chairman Kelly Martin – who also is president of the Village of North Branch – did nearly all of the talking on behalf of the board that had three members present.
Martin kicked off the meeting by explaining the commission is working to update an existing ordinance related to “wind energy conversion systems” (the existing ordinance only pertains to small, independently owned wind turbines and doesn’t address commercial operations).
It’s early in the process, Martin said, prior to reading the draft ordinance amendments aloud.
“We’re going to try to go through the order things are taking, why we’re doing certain things, some of the things that are driving this, and then we’ll have an opportunity for public comments – and we’ll ask you to keep those brief,” Martin said, later stating “we’re not the enemy, we’re your neighbors.”
North Branch Township is among several in northern Lapeer County considering adoption of new or revised wind ordinances.
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.”
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.
At Tuesday’s planning commission meeting in North Branch Township, residents expressed concern from the get-go.
“You’ve got rich guys that own these corporations that own these wind turbines… they’re coming in, offering big money, suckering people to lease their land and these wind turbines cause health problems,” said Walter Williams, a resident of the village of Clifford, addressed the commission throughout the meeting.
“They don’t benefit people,” Williams said. “We’re not getting a cut on our electric bills. The people that own these windmills are getting the money. Not you and I. The average person ain’t getting squat.”
Williams further expressed concerns over increased truck traffic during construction of wind turbines, along with “what happens to the peace and quiet of the rural areas we live in.”
“We don’t want the city here,” Williams said. “I’m not against progress. I’m against stupid progress, selfish progress… that people who have money try and cram down our throats.”
Williams urged planning commissioners to “stop this,” claiming they “are going to put on our children, and grandchildren without thinking this through.”
Martin explained the planning commission’s role, which is to “fashion something that makes sense – the best sense we can make out of it – hold a public hearing when we have a finished product, and give people an opportunity to look at it and ask questions.”
The planning commission doesn’t have the ability to completely stop any companies from bringing wind turbines to the area without running the risk of “exclusionary zoning.”
Prohibited per state law, exclusionary zoning has “the effect of totally prohibiting the establishment of a land use within a local unit of government in the presence of a demonstrated need for that land use … unless a location within the local unit of government does not exist where the use may be appropriately located or the use is unlawful.”
“If it becomes apparent that you’re structurally zoning them out of existence, where it’s apparent they couldn’t possibly site one, that’s usually where you end up in a courthouse,” Martin said. “No township wants to be the one where these folks dig their heels in and decide to fight back because they’ll bankrupt you.”
“So what we come up with needs to be enforceable, and it needs to look like it makes sense,” Martin added.
When the planning commission reaches a consensus on what to recommend, Martin said, it ultimately is up to the township board to change, adopt, or deny the recommendations.
Martin said the purpose of Tuesday’s meeting was to go through the current draft of zoning amendments under consideration.
The updates to commercial “wind energy conversion systems” encompassed a total of about one printed page of paper. Martin explained the amendments originated with a recommendation from Rowe Professional Services, which based its recommendation on info gathered from “about five to eight existing ordinances in other communities.”
Martin read the amendments out loud during the meeting.
Among the sections was one pertaining to setbacks, or how far wind turbines can be from other things:
The proposed change says “The structural design shall be signed and sealed by a professional engineer, registered in the State of Michigan, certify that the structural design complies with all of the standards set forth for safety and stability in all application codes then in effect in the State of Michigan and all sections referred to herein above. The minimum setbacks for such towers from all abutting streets or adjacent property shall be a distance equal to three times the height of the tower. Setbacks shall be measured from the property line to the center point of the windmill tower.”
Members of the public raised questions about who gets to pick the professional engineer, and called for a specific provision that requires an independent third party.
“It doesn’t say ‘by third party,’ so couldn’t they just hire whoever they want?” said Sarah Coulson, a Burnside Township resident.
Martin said the commission “would add it to the discussion.”
Areas residents also asked the commission to consider minimum setbacks of four times the height of a turbine. Again, Martin said it could be discussed.
Also, further discussion ensued about permitted decibel levels.
The current ordinance allows for a maximum noise level of 50 decibels “as measured on the dBA scale, measured at each property line at any time.”
Members of the public once again spoke out, urging planning commission members to consider 40 decibels or lower as the max permitted decibel level. Martin simply said “let’s look at 40.”
Other proposed amendments address:
• Definition. A commercial operation was identified as one containing more than one windmill exceeding 80 feet (most now are at the limit of 499 feet).
• Decommissioning. Among other things, the draft calls for an applicant to provide information about the estimated life of a wind turbine project, estimated decommissioning costs, how the site will be restored, and “the method of ensuring that funds will be available for decommissioning and restoration.”
• Advertising. This provision prohibits the use of advertising on the wind turbine, which also must be a neutral color.
• Shadow flicker. This provision would call for applicants to “conduct an analysis of potential shadow flicker created by each proposed wind turbine at all inhabitable structures with direct line-of-sight to a wind turbine.” (Shadow flicker is essentially the effect created by a wind turbine blade slicing through the sun’s rays.)
• Complaint resolution. The applicant must submit a detailed written complaint resolution process that must be approved by the township board as a condition.
Martin was adamant throughout the meeting, that “this is not being driven at the local level.”
“This is being driven at the state and national level,” he said. “The meetings where decisions are being made as to what we can and can’t do as a local community are coming out of Lansing.”
On Dec. 21, 2016, Public Act 342 was signed into law. Known as the Clean and Renewable Energy and Energy Waste Reduction Act, it amends Michigan’s 2008 energy law, Act 295.
The Renewable Energy Standard requires Michigan electric providers to achieve a retail supply portfolio that increases from 10 percent in 2015 to 15 percent in 2021. There is an interim compliance requirement of 12.5 percent in 2019 and 2020.
“We’re not making law. We’re responding to forces that are coming from the national and state level and what we come up with and adopt at some point – a month, two months from now – as an amended version might be out the window if something comes out of Lansing.”
Still, several audience members suggested that the township planning commission needs to take more time with the ordinance.
Traci Martin, a North Branch Township resident, told the board she felt like “all of this might be a little rushed and perhaps officials don’t have enough adequate time to do the research so we know the verbiage to move forward with this.”
“Is there a time limit that you were given that you have to…?” Traci Martin began.
Kelly Martin cut in and said, “No.”
He would go on to say recommended ordinance amendments would move forward “when we have a level of comfort.”
“If it takes another two or three months, I don’t care,” Kelly Martin said.
Townships in neighboring counties have spent significant amounts of time crafting local law.
Leo Sonck, supervisor, Bridgehampton Township in Sanilac County, said his township spent six months crafting amendments to its now nine-page ordinance.
“My best advice to all of these townships is ignore all the talk about money, the money means nothing,” Sonck said. “My focus was on health, safety, welfare, and property rights of all of our residents.”
Sonck suggested officials consider a one-year moratorium to craft a “strong ordinance.” (A moratorium puts a temporary hold on allowing wind developments to move forward.)
“A strong ordinance will not result in a lawsuit as there is nothing illegal about it,” he said.
Jim Tussey, a trustee in Almer Township in Tuscola County, said that township is working on an updated wind ordinance that is 18 pages long and has been worked on for an estimated 200 hours.
George Boisineau, a North Branch Township resident, said after the meeting on Tuesday that he is worried the planning commission in his hometown hasn’t done enough homework.
“I thought the board wasn’t that prepared,” he said. “I thought they were ill-prepared.”