CASNOVIA TOWNSHIP, MI – A proposed wind farm project at the border of Muskegon and Kent counties has local residents concerned about their quality of life and safety if the project is approved by Casnovia Township officials.
The proposed wind farm, dubbed the Kenowa Ridge Wind Farm Project, would stretch across portions of Casnovia Township in Muskegon County and Tyrone Township in Kent County. It was the focus of a sometimes raucous planning commission meeting Tuesday in Casnovia Township.
Project managers with Sempra Energy have said that the farm could produce at least 100 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 38,000 homes, according to planning documents provided by Sempra.
If approved, the project would be built by 2020 and could include up to 31 wind turbines. Sempra would operate the wind farm for a period of 30 years. Company officials also promised up to $1 million in new revenue for both townships and up to $75,000 in individual land leases for residents who allow turbines on their property.
The proposal is being considered by the Casnovia Township Planning Commission, which held a regular meeting Tuesday night focused on the wind farm proposal.
The meeting included an update from the Muskegon County Road Commission and Progressive AE, the township’s engineering consultants. Both entities were asked to review Sempra’s application for a special land use permit and if it met their standards.
It also included a lengthy public comment session with many residents expressing opposition to the project.
Essentially, Sempra is asking the township for a special use permit to be able to install and operate the proposed wind turbines and all associated infrastructure, such as an energy substation and power lines running underground.
The meeting on Tuesday served as a discussion between representatives from Sempra and the planning commission before it makes a recommendation to the Casnovia Township Board of Trustees.
The project’s public comment period is now closed, but that didn’t stop nearly 100 residents from attending the meeting. Few of them were in favor of the proposal, and shouted angry jeers and inaudible questions from the crowd.
At one point, township Attorney Catherine Kaufman said she would start having people removed if the audience couldn’t contain itself. Among residents’ main concerns were quality of life issues caused by large wind farms, such as excessive noise, annoying “shadow flicker” from turbine blades and hazards to surrounding wildlife.
“The water doesn’t belong to me,” said resident Fred Clingen, who lives near Half Moon Lake. “And you are all welcome to come use it. The air belongs to this community.”
Another point of contention for residents was concern for their safety if a turbine catches fire, throws ice like projectiles in the winter time or, worse, if a turbine blade breaks off during operation.
Meanwhile, another group of residents complained that they weren’t given proper notice when the comment period began.
Paul Black, a Casnovia resident and institutional investor, brought up the fact that Sempra is looking to sell its renewable energy assets soon, and that the township could be left on the hook if another company buys Sempra and fails to honor their agreement.
“Sempra Energy has decided corporately that (wind energy) is not the direction they’re going to continue, they’re going to sell off these assets,” Black said. “There’s going to be consequences for all of those (Sempra) projects … and all the projects that are currently in the process (of being built).
“We will not know who our partner is. We’re here in part because people signed leases before they knew all of what they know now.”
Lisa Briggs, Sempra’s manager of government affairs, confirmed that Sempra’s green energy assets were up for sale. She also said the sale should not affect the agreement nor the project should it receive township approval.
The commission ultimately tabled the discussion for an unspecified period of time so officials could mull the township’s zoning guidelines to see if Sempra complies. The body was also asked to consider an agreement proposed by the road Commission so the township, Muskegon County and Sempra have a clear understanding of what road updates would be necessary to move equipment back and forth from tower sites.
Kaufman said that while she appreciated the outpouring of public input at the meeting, the planning commission would eventually decide based only on existing zoning requirements.
If the township denies Sempra based on public outcry, as opposed to the bylaws of the wind turbine zoning ordinance, Sempra could potentially file a lawsuit in circuit court, said Terry Harrison, Casnovia’s zoning administrator.
Township Supervisor Kelli Ashbaugh was in attendance, but would not comment on the meeting nor the proposed wind farm. Ashbaugh told MLive that she was advised to not speak to the press about the project until after her vote was cast.
Overall, Harrison said he’s not surprised by the outcry, and is empathetic toward the concerns.
“I understand where they’re coming from, I do,” Harrison said. “These guys have a difficult decision to make. None of these (planning commissioners) are professionals in this field and they’re doing the best job they can. But myself and the attorney cannot influence that decision whatsoever, I have to follow the ordinance.”
Harrison added that the benefits of the project are clear, like upgraded roads and new revenue.
As for Sempra, Briggs said she wasn’t surprised by the negative responses at the meeting, but said it was not irresponsible for Sempra to be considering a new project in Muskegon and Kent counties while it was under negotiations for sale.
“I think (the news of the sale) confuses and clouds the issue,” Briggs told MLive. “We are at the very start of the sale process. These sales take a lot of time … I don’t think it’s irresponsible because the leases are in place, and that will transfer to whoever takes over the project.
“Any and all permits or conditions will stay with the project. I’ve worked for Sempra for 10 years. They’re a good company and they do the right thing.”
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