Owing to the size of the wind project across five townships, Isabella County formally established two separate funds last week to make sure that taxpayers weren’t stuck paying to make sure the windmills comply with the county’s zoning ordinance.
Money for both funds came from the project’s developers. Some of it, $589,800 will go towards paying costs associated with making sure that the project itself complies with the zoning ordinance. The rest of it, $25,000 is being set aside to cover the costs of investigating complaints and bringing individual windmills into compliance.
The county already has the money, said Tim Nieporte, director of the county’s community development office. On Tuesday, county commissioners voted to formally establish the two funds through which it’ll be spent.
The pre-construction funds will go towards paying consultants helping the county make sure that the wind project is in compliance with zoning restrictions in getting the special use permit approved and during the site plan review, the process by which the county planning commission will scrutinize individual windmills to make sure their plans are compliant.
For small projects, Nieporte said his office can handle the work. The wind farm is not only much larger than projects his office handles, but his existing staff still needs to do the rest of their day-to-day work.
Spicer Group, a large engineering firm that provides engineering and consulting to local governments across Michigan on a wide range of infrastructure, came highly recommended from Coe Township, Nieporte said. Coe Township recently completed its own windfarm project, albeit much smaller, and recommended both Spicer Group – and especially consultant Alan Bean – and Bill Fahey, an attorney with the Lansing law firm of Fahey, Schultz, Burzych & Rhodes. Like Spicer, that law firm is associated with a wide range of services for local governments.
Bean and Fahey facilitated the wind farm’s special use permit hearing in late January, at which they asked the wind farm developers of Apex Energy for plans to bring the elements of their project that on paper wouldn’t comply with the county’s zoning ordinance into actual compliance once built.
At the hearing, for instance, Bean asked representatives of Apex to explain how they will ensure that their windmills comply with the amount of ambient pollution – noise and flickering shadows cast as the blades block the sun for milliseconds at a time – allowable under the county’s zoning ordinance. Apex explained that they will use internal technology the regulate the speed that the turbine spins to reduce noise and have gamed out how many hours per year that a particular windmill will be between the sun and a neighboring home and can use that to calculate how long they can operate each individual windmill before they have to shut it down to remain in compliance.
If a neighbor complains that a particular windmill is out of compliance, that activates expenditures from the second account. That money will go towards first studying the issue and second bringing the offending windmill into compliance if an issue is discovered.
Nieporte said that in other places, a sound study might cost $6,000-$8,000, allowing for a few studies before the funds in that fund are depleted. In that case, however, the wind developers are required to provide the county with more money to restore that fund. So, while the fund starts only with $25,000, in reality it’s inexhaustible.
The post-construction fund is not terribly common, Nieporte said, but one he felt was necessary to buffer county taxpayers from the burden of paying to make sure such a large project. It was also communicated to Apex as part of the county’s fee structure.
One person at January’s special use permit hearing objected to the fact that the two accounts hadn’t been established yet and said that alone should hold up the wind farm until the county board had acted. The county had the money available at the time, Nieporte said, and that setting up the two funds via vote by the county commission was a formality.
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