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County board finalizes new wind rules; Changes prompt wind firms to say projects are dead

CORUNNA – The Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to finalize the county’s ordinance regulating wind turbines to make it more restrictive toward companies that wish to build in the county – a move three wind companies say will end their plans in the county after a debate that has raged for the past 1 1/2 years.

“It is a sense of relief, now that this is over,” Board Chairman Jeff Bartz said after the meeting. “This has been the hardest vote I’ve had to make as a commissioner in six years. The passion on both sides has been incredible. I don’t think this is the end of the issue, but we as a board have worked hard to do what we think is best for the people in the county for right now.”

Brad Pnazek, a senior development manager at Tradewind Energy – one of three turbine companies that have looked into developing in Shiawassee County at one time or another – said the board’s vote effectively ended Tradewind’s involvement in the county. Land leases that were signed between county residents and the company were dependent on the board enacting amendments that were “feasible” for development, he said, so they will probably not be signed.

“It’s disappointing to see the commission make the decision they made today,” Pnazek said. “In any community that has adopted regulations as restrictive as this, no wind projects have been developed. Effectively, the board voted that they did not want wind turbines in Shiawassee County.”

In April, Apex Clean Energy, which also was pursuing a wind development, informed lease holders it would not renew those contracts because the changes under consideration were too restrictive. Apex officials were not at the meeting Thursday.

Pnazek said DTE’s interest in the county has also been reduced because of restrictive zoning amendments.

The amendments limit the height, sound level, setbacks and other issues related to development of turbines. The same amendments approved by the board Thursday had been previously approved by the county planning commission.

Commissioner Michael Bruff, who served on the planning commission at the time it was considering the amendments, said the board cast the correct vote.

“The overwhelming majority of people who have contacted me gave their support for the vote of the planning commission, which was unanimous, as was ours. I feel like we’re all in agreement that this was the right thing to do,” Bruff said.

Farmers who signed leases with Tradewind told commissioners that less restrictive rules on wind energy would benefit the economy while others who have not signed leases spoke of a possible decline in housing values.

One person who spoke in favor of wind projects said he intended to seek a referendum on the issue.

Robert Ebmeyer, a member of the county planning commission, which had previously approved the ordinance by a unanimous vote, asked commissioners to take another look at the language in the ordinance regarding maximum height. While the planning board’s vote May 9 was ultimately unanimous, Ebmeyer said, the 450-foot stipulation was added as part of an amendment that he did not support. However, he was outvoted on the addition.

Among the rules adopted Thursday:

n The acceptable noise level from a turbine was set at 45 decibels, measured from a “non-participating” property line – meaning property for which the owner has not signed an agreement with a company. The previous ordinance allowed 55 decibels.

n A wind turbine must be set back 350 percent of its height from the property line of a non-participating owner. The setback was 150 percent of the tower’s height.

n Turbines have to be designed, placed and operated in a way that does not produce “shadow flicker” on a non-participating parcel of land. The previous rule didn’t address shadow flicker.

n A wind turbine can be no taller than 450 feet. The previous ordinance allowed for 600-foot turbines.

Commissioners were under pressure to act at this month’s meetings because a moratorium that is in place regarding wind energy development in the county is set to expire. The moratorium blocks companies from applying for the necessary permits to build turbines.

As they have many times since commissioners took up the issue in September 2016, people from across the county spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, both for and against turbines.

Bruff thanked people who have participated in the process.

“(I’ve given) credit to the planning commission, the board of commissioners and the turbine people for their efforts … I think I was a little short on giving credit to the people of the county for the research they’ve done,” Bruff said. “They’ve been in this discussion, battle, call it whatever you want, for the past 18 months as well. … You hear so much that people just don’t want to get involved, but you proved them all wrong, both pros and cons.”