BRANCH COUNTY – The Branch County Planning Commission, meeting for the first time since March of 2017, discovered it had several steps to take before considering a proposed countywide ordinance regulating wind turbines.
Newly appointed member Marilyn Johnson asked the group to recommend the county impose a moratorium on turbines while the study is taking place, but the commission declined to act.
Branch County Commissioner and Planning member Randall Hazelbaker said he would bring the issue before the county commission, which has the authority to act by passing such a resolution.
Consultant Patrick Hudson, of the Upjohn Institute, explained that the county could enact a planning ordinance that would cover the four townships – Bronson, California, Noble, and Union Townships – without zoning regulation.
In Union, voters turned down zoning, in the Nov. 6 election, by 25 votes.
That loss has prompted the nearly 400 members of the Concerned Citizens of Branch County to push for other ways to regulate turbines in the county; faced with a plan for a DTE wind farm in the four northwest townships.
Hudson added that the other zoned townships could decide whether to come under county zoning or opt out for their own regulations.
County member and Coldwater City Planner, Dean Walrack, said, “We do not have a master plan on which to make any kind of decision.”
He added that by also failing to meet quarterly, “we are not in position to do anything for a countywide ordinance.”
The Union Township vote also concerned Walrack.
“So, are we going to come in and set up zoning for a township that said it did not want a zoning ordinance?” he asked.
Walrack called for not just an update, but a new master plan.
“We need to get compliant before we take any action,” he said.
That would mean an update to the 1990 Master Plan.
Chairman Debbie Lounds-Bowers questioned whether Branch County could afford the minimum $20,000 up to $50,000 cost for a consultant as well as the cost of enforcing an ordinance.
County Administrator Bud Norman said there are no funds available in the new 2019 budget.
Hudson said, “You cannot zone out the wind turbines. They have to be allowed someplace in the county.”
This includes a ban writing restriction which would preclude them.
“Exclusionary zoning is illegal. Restrictive ordinances are allowed so long as it does not effectively eliminate them,” he added. “Setbacks can’t be so extreme to eliminate all turbines.”
Paul Funk from DTE said his company does not yet have a detailed plan of where to place turbines in Branch County. except that it is signing leases in the four townships. With nearly 70 percent of the property it needs under contract, site boundaries are in flux.
About 37 percent of the time winds in the area are adequate. Newer better equipment makes what was once marginal areas now viable for wind generation.
In Michigan, DTE is committed to 10 to 15 percent wind energy, the cheapest form of power.
The investment pay off is 7 to 10 years.
Funk called the wind farm a power plant.
Pam Reed of Concerned Citizens asked the planning commission if they were alright with a power plant next to their homes.
“This is an incompatible land use issue,” she said.
In reference to those that signed leases with DTE in Union Township Reed asked the planning commission, and county, to “come in and rescue (residents) from lame duck elected officials.”
Hudson referred members to several research articles, accessible on the internet, discussing wind turbines, along with guidelines drafted by Michigan State University and the State of Michigan for wind turbine regulation.
The Planning Commission will not meet again until March 2019.
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