BURNSIDE TWP. – Burnside Township officials voted Monday to adopt zoning ordinance amendments specific to “wind farms” following months of delays and despite pleas from DTE Energy to consider taking even more time, and make more changes.
The adopted zoning ordinance amendments are the same ones that DTE officials said just last week would effectively make it impossible to erect any wind turbines in Burnside Township.
The reason, company officials said, is that the updates are too limiting.
The company maintained that position after the decision made by Burnside officials on Monday.
“While many Michigan communities have welcomed wind development, the adopted wind development zoning ordinance will all but prevent development of a DTE Energy wind project in the community,” according to a written response provided by Cindy Hecht, senior communications specialist, DTE.
“Over the past several months, DTE has provided local elected officials and residents with examples of wind development zoning ordinances that balance respect for private property rights and community well-being,” the statement continued. “We are disappointed for the Burnside Township land owners, businesses and community that stood to benefit in many ways, including increased tax revenue and job creation.”
Further the company said that “Given that wind development is a permitted, legal land use, we will continue to meet with residents of other areas to assess interest in a potential future wind project.”
DTE has been evaluating the potential for constructing a “wind farm” in northern Lapeer County. The scope of the area under evaluation thus far has been limited to Burnside, Burlington, and North Branch townships.
As The County Press reported Feb. 21, DTE officials say the project could consist of 50-60 wind turbines. The project could carry a $300 million price tag.
Matt Wagner, manager of renewable energy development for DTE, said currently the company has 89 easement agreements for wind development (more commonly called “wind leases”) in northern Lapeer County. The area covered by the agreements is “a little more than 15,000 acres of land,” Wagner said.
Further, he said the number of new signed leases has grown “substantially” and that the company hopes to sign leases for another roughly 10,000 acres of land.
Burnside officials, however, said repeatedly during Monday’s meeting that their primary concern was that of the public health, safety, and welfare – not how profitable a company can be in their community. About 50 people attended the meeting.
Another point repeated several times during the meeting was that Burnside officials – first at the planning commission level and then full board – since June have been discussing updates to its previously outdated requirements related to wind energy developments.
The township board was set to vote on proposed amendments to the zoning ordinance at its regular monthly meeting on Monday, Dec. 18.
The amendments covered various items, from fire prevention and emergency response plan requirements to decommissioning (what happens to wind turbines when they are no longer being used).
Per state law, the township board is not required to have a public hearing before it takes action on such recommendations – unless “one interested party in the township formally demands a public hearing.”
The township received one such request, but not in time to make it on the December agenda.
As a result, it was set for Jan. 22. However, a power outage struck the Brown City area during the meeting, delaying any further discussion or action on that day.
On Monday, residents continued to fire questions at the township board and DTE officials.
“Why do these towers need to go in our farmland, in our area, in my back yard, in someone else’s back yard?” asked Nadrina Walker. “Why can’t it stay on I-69? Why can’t it stay where there’s already something going on?”
Walker also said that if wind turbines become part of the landscape, “Burnside’s not going to look like Burnside anymore.”
“Burnside’s going to look like all those other areas up north with ugly eyesores, broken down towers … the noise. It all kind of contributes, like one big package,” she said.
Despite the board’s intent to consider changes to the zoning ordinance, people had other questions, too – ranging from a brief discussion about “true costs” of wind energy to property values.
Pat Woodward likened the idea of selling wind turbines to a community to the way cigarette companies once did in 1950s and 1960s.
“The cigarette ads all said how great these were for you,” she said. “How beneficial these work for you. You’ll feel great. And that seems to be the same message we’re getting from DTE – about how great these are going to be for you. How beneficial they’re going to be for you.”
Michael Sage, marketing program manager, renewable energy wind development, DTE, made a last-minute appeal to Burnside officials.
The two primary areas of concern he identified were setbacks (how far wind turbines can be from other things) and sound limits identified in the then-proposed ordinance amendments.
By example, when addressing the board, Sage referred to one of the setback requirements – how far wind turbines can be from inhabited structures.
“Just that one requirement would reduce the area (that could have a turbine) by 83 percent,” he said. “And that doesn’t take into consideration the other percentage that could have wildlife concerns and other things that could reduce it more. And that’s just one of the setbacks that you have recommended at this time.”
Sage also raised the question of sound limitations. The recommended amendment prior to Monday’s vote – and eventually approved – called for sound not to exceed 45 decibels using a standard of measurement known as “Lmax,” which basically says sound can’t exceed that set level. Lmax is compared with “Leq” – a standard of sound measurement that considers average sound over a certain period of time.
“(The 45-decibel limit measured at Lmax) will effectively eliminate almost the entire township,” Sage said, adding “we really want you to think hard about how that affects everything, in terms of our development as well as your community.”
Township attorney Tim Denney addressed the board and those in the audience for about 30 minutes, presenting several things for the board to consider. He noted more than once that he was neither for nor against any kind of wind energy development, and that his job was to only tell the board what was legally permissible.
One of the main questions he addressed was whether or not the setbacks in the zoning ordinance amendments were legally justifiable.
Per the amendment, the distance between a wind turbine “and the property lines of adjacent non-leased properties including public rights of way shall be either 1,640 feet or 3.5 times the height of the (wind turbine) including the top of the blade in its vertical position, whichever is less.”
The ordinance also calls for a distance of 1,640 feet or 3.5 times the height of a wind turbine from “the nearest wall of an inhabited structure.”
Denney said township officials considered a wind turbine accident from 2008 involving a “runaway turbine.” Denney said subsequent investigation found that debris was found as far away from the turbine as 1,640 feet.
“DTE may say ‘look this is not about us, that is not our manufacturer’ – no this is not about the manufacturer, it’s about the physics,” Denney said. “It’s about how far a wind turbine can fly. It doesn’t matter what manufacturer you’re talking about.”
Denney also noted a safety manual from a wind turbine manufacturer (Vestas) that noted employees should get at least 1,640 feet from a wind turbine in the event of emergency.
“If Vestas thought enough of its employees to say ‘If that turbine starts running out of control, you run as fast as your little tail can take you upwind at least 1,640 feet’, I suggest to you that’s just as relevant to the neighbor living across the street,” he said.
Denney also questioned the claim of whether or not the recommended setbacks would totally eliminate the possibility of turbines in the township. He also claimed that the direct benefits to Burnside Township in terms of tax revenue would be minimal.
Burnside Township Clerk Bonnie Koning suggested township officials did their due diligence in arriving to a vote Monday.
“My feeling is that we put a lot of time into this, we’ve researched it, and if we see there are more details coming in down the road, in a year or so we see more facts coming through where we want to change it, we’ll change it,” she said.
The township voted 5-0 to adopt the zoning ordinance amendments.