As Isabella County takes steps to regulate any future wind farms and at least one energy company seems on the precipice of applying for permits to start building turbines, a group of residents is rallying to slow the process to ensure that safety and property rights concerns are addressed.
Isabella Wind Watch, a group with a few dozen active community members and a few hundred followers on Facebook, says they’re not interested in stopping other property owners from leasing their land, and they’re goal isn’t to stop wind energy farms from coming to the county.
The group says they are concerned with finding adequate set backs between property lines and turbines, protecting private and public property values, and meeting terms on noise and safety concerns that satisfy all residents.
“I’m all for wind, I’m all for solar. I have solar on my house and I’d have a residential wind turbine if I could afford it,” said LouAnn Mogg, who lives on about 400 acres in Rosebush.
Mogg’s property has four or five oil rigs, energy company leases grandfathered into the property before her time, though she does receive small payments, she said.
Although some in support of wind energy say those against have ties to oil money, Mogg says that’s not her motivation.
“I’m against the bombardment,” she said.
Apex Clean Energy approached Mogg in 2016, handing her an initial version of a contract that has been modified and now signed by many property owners in rural Isabella County, leasing to the company more than 43,000 acres of land as potential sites for wind turbines, underground transmitters, energy farm access roads and more.
“It was an interesting contract so I got a highlighter and started going through lines,” said Colleen Vogel, who lives on more than 400 acres in Gilmore Township. “We have to be careful. The contract is 34 years and 11 months. Once in place this is not something that’s going to change in our lifetime.”
Vogel was approached in February of 2017 about her land and felt uncomfortable with the “back door” way she feels Apex is acquiring land.
“It was a hard sell. They said, ‘All of your neighbors are supporting, you don’t want to miss out,’” Vegel said.
Concerns that the contract give Apex too much freedom to do what they wish on the leased land, including removing trees, building access roads and more is one of several driving forces behind the group’s opposition.
“We just want responsible zoning. We want safer setbacks. We want it to be fair for everybody. Not just those who are leasing land,” Vogel said.
Changes to the county wind farm ordinance reduced maximum decibel levels and increased setbacks for turbines – a huge point of contention for those in opposition – but Isabella Wind Watch members would like to see more.
As the ordinance stands now, a turbine built on a participating property next to a nonparticipating would need to be the same distance from the property line as the height of the turbine measured to the tip of the tallest blade.
It would also need to be two times the height or 1000 feet – whichever is greater – from any inhabitable dwelling on the either property, said Isabella County Community Development Director Tim Nieporte.
Isabella Wind Watch members are also concerned with compromising a quiet rural way of life with industrial structures dotting the horizon, diminished property values and loss of wildlife and habitat; they share safety concerns from things like stray voltage, turbine fires and more.
“It’s going to affect tourism,” said Corey Bourland, who lives on 20 acres in Rosebush. “There’s a noise factor too. When I have a campfire, I want to hear nature. I don’t want to hear somebody’s turbine turning 24/7. This is farm land, they’re using it for a use that was never intended.”
Bourland also questioned if Isabella County can match the success modeled by other wind farms in the state like those in Gratiot County; the two areas are different, he said.
Gratiot County has a 100,000 more acres of farmland than Isabella, and about 60 percent of the population, making it more compatible with wind farms, he said.
Bourland was never approached by Apex, but some of his neighbors have signed; the divisiveness of the contentious proposed wind farms is another drawback for the active members of the wind watch.
“I think the saddest thing is how it’s made neighbors almost enemies, because they are tearing communities apart,” Vogel said. As more landowners sign with Apex, others are taking action to protect what they perceive are their local municipality and landowner rights.
At least two townships in Isabella County – Vernon and Denver – are looking at ballot initiatives this year to retain zoning power in the townships rather than at the county level after signed petitions were submitted.
At least in Vernon Township, Mogg herself was the circulator collecting those signatures.
Isabella Wind Watch members plan to be at the Isabella County Planning Commission meeting Thursday at 7 p.m. to have their voce heard.
There are six action items related to wind farm ordinances on the agenda that include two setback issues, a further noise reduction, a sound study requirement and a radar light system that would allow turbine lights to be off until an aircraft is detected, reducing light pollution, Neiporte said.
Members of the group also recently attended a public informational meeting at Beal City Schools, where board members are considering leasing 26 acres of the 100 acre school grounds to Apex.
While the wind watch is concerned that the broad consents in the Apex contract might mean intrusive infrastructure on the school property – in addition to safety concerns – Superintendent William Chilman says the district has done its research.
“My job is to bring the school board opportunities. They make an educated decision,” he said, noting that board members had specific questions for Apex regarding the contract.
“That’s why we’re not looking at a larger lease. We don’t want the potential for a wind turbine,” he said.
The 26 acres up for discussion are along a fence line and would not affect the school forest or any sports fields or buildings, Chilman said; If the school entered into a lease agreement, Apex could put transmission lines underground or an access road through those acres.
A lease on its own would pay the district $60 per acre – about $1,560 a year – while further construction would pay more.
“It really isn’t about the money,” Chilman said, noting the school leases 40 to 50 acres of land to a farmer, allows an internet company to use a football stadium light post to send a signal and more.
“We want to have good relationships with the community,” he said.
The contract will be an action item up for discussion at the Beal City School Board meeting on Feb. 19; the board could decide to vote, to simply discuss or to table the decision.
Members of Isabella Wind Watch left the district’s work session on the lease last week expressing frustration at what they felt were vague answers from Apex on stray voltage and other safety concerns.
“Shame on them,” Bourland said, concerned about wind companies trying to build bigger footprints down the road. “It’s about the future use of their own property.”
Whether Beal City Schools decide to sign a lease has little bearing on a wind project gaining momentum by acquiring nearly 44,000 acres in the county so far.
“If Beal City Schools doesn’t sign, does that stop the project? No. That doesn’t stop the project at all,” said Albert Jongewaard of Apex.
While the landowner contracts do allow Apex to remove trees, put in access roads and underground energy collection systems and, the most notable, build huge wind turbines to general energy – Jongewaard said the company will still have to follow local ordinances and have building and engineering plans approved.
“We have to have clearly delineated areas of construction. We’ve got to go to the county or zoning authority with fully fleshed out engineering plans and the site plan has to be laid out; it tells where we can and cannot build,” he said.
Additionally, Apex will have to enter into agreements with the road commission to bring building materials and more “almost like a delicate dance,” he said.
“After the construction is done, we don’t have the right to just change or build more. We’d have to go back through the county review process and get another special use permit,” he said.
Jongewaard touts the financial benefits of a wind farm for a rural community; in Isabella County an initial, conservative estimate on revenue for local entities is around $30 million for the life of the project, along with $100 million in private property owner payouts.
“People who signed on the project have land rights, and have the right to develop as they see fit… they want to develop land in certain way, if that means they want to participate in a wind project, that’s their right,’ He said. “They shouldn’t be prohibited because their neighbor has a different opinion.”
The Isabella Wind Watch perspective is actually pretty similar, according to Mogg: in particular when the property owner lives themselves live on the land they’re leasing.
“Three sides of my house, property owners do not live there. We’re seeing that in every township,” she said. “We kind of feel that is unfair, these guys aren’t even here. They’re going to collect their money and never look at that turbine.”
For those owners signing contracts where they live, she reiterated that she’s not anti-wind, she concerned about her own property and way of life.
“We agree, you have the right to do what you want,” she said. “But we have the right to protect our property. No one I’ve talked to is against wind energy. Everyone is like, ‘this is great.’ But it needs to be more sensible and responsible. It doesn’t make sense to destroy rural America.”
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