Plans for a major wind farm in five townships across northern Isabella County took a major step forward Thursday night when the Isabella County Planning Commission gave them its unanimous approval before a packed crowd in Mt. Pleasant city hall.
Their approval came with significant strings attached, and part of the night was spent hashing out areas for which the permit applicant, Apex Clean Energy, Inc., acknowledged that its plans were not entirely in compliance with the county’s zoning ordinance requirements for wind turbines.
Those three areas in particular involved aircraft safety, noise and a form of light pollution called shadow flickering. Shadow flickering describes what happens when a working wind turbine gets between the sun and something on the landscape. Representatives from Apex and some of its associated companies answered questions from planning commissioners about their plans to bring those turbines into compliance.
The county’s zoning ordinance limits the amount of noise a turbine can make to approximately 50 decibels, and limits shadow flickering to 30 hours per year. Apex representatives said they plan to use monitoring technology as part of their compliance plan for both.
Aircraft safety isn’t a county issue. It starts with the FAA reviewing the wind farm plans and looking at nearby airports to make sure that aircraft aren’t put at risk. Once the FAA is finished, it sends its report to the state.
While the county doesn’t have a role in the matter of aircraft safety, it does require Apex to get FAA clearance as part of the conditions attached to the special use permit.
In fact, the whole permitting process is not intended to be a one-off thing, but a staggered process that starts with granting the permit and that moves into a much more complicated process of site plan reviews.
That is, in fact, the next step, said county community development director Tim Nieporte after the hearing. The special permit use grants permission for the overall project to go forward. What comes next is the tricky process of figuring out whether individual turbines meet county standards, which ones that don’t meet them can be made to meet them and which ones will ultimately be dropped from the project.
Plans to move to specific site plan reviews are not yet set, Nieporte said, because setting those was delayed pending planning commission action on the special use permit. It also means potentially discussing details on each individual turbine.
Part of that is also making sure that every turbine meets the conditions laid down in the planning commission’s resolution approving the special use permit. It is likely to be a laborious process likely to require special meetings, Nieporte said.
FAA approval is one of the things commissioners will look at in approving individual site plan reviews. During a public comment period that preceded the commission’s questioning of Apex on issues specifically related to the permit, some members of the public asked the planning commission to table the special use permit pending FAA approval, which is five weeks behind schedule because of the federal government shutdown.
Public comment lasted for a couple of hours, with each person given three minutes to talk about the project. Although a handful of people spoke about specific provisions in the permit, including an attorney paid to oppose the project, everyone else fell into three general groups: people in favor of wind turbines because of climate change, people opposed for NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) reasons and people who came from outside the affected townships.
County officials anticipated heavy turnout, and they held the meeting in the city commission chambers of Mt. Pleasant city hall. The crowd filled the seats and lined the walls and started to approve maximum occupancy.
Their concerns were noted, but what commissioners were looking for was opposition based on specific provisions in the special use permit. While there were a few smaller issues, eventually they settled on the three of noise, shadow flickering and aircraft safety as worthy of in-depth discussion.
When it came time to vote, the planning commission did so four members short. One of the commissioners, Ann Silker, was absent; and Jerry Neyer, Phillip Vogel and Nathan Rogers were disqualified for having conflicts of interests and were excused from the meeting.
Taking part in the unanimous vote of approval was planning commission chairman Jeremy Murphy, vice chairman Kelly Bean, secretary Tim O’Neill, county commission representative to the planning commission Jim Horton and Bob Campbell.
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