Anna Kien calls herself an environmentalist. The Sherwood Township resident believes in the importance of renewable energy. But she doesn’t support wind turbine projects in Branch County.
“A lot of people like to say, ‘Oh, you’re against wind, you’re against green energy, and it’s none of the above. It’s improper siting. I mean, these are industrial, 500 plus foot machines coming into areas that historically they never ever would have been,” she said. “It transforms the land into an industrial zone.”
Proposed wind projects by DTE Energy in Union Township, Matteson Township, Batavia Township and Sherwood Township have sparked debate over land use and where wind turbines should be located.
That debate will come to a head in Sherwood Township tonight when community leaders vote on whether to pass a zoning ordinance that would restrict wind turbines in the area.
Kien is a spokeswoman for Concerned Citizens of Branch County, a community coalition that formed to oppose wind projects in the area. She and many other residents feel that wind projects in Branch County will change the rural, agricultural character of the land and negatively impact property values.
Other residents think the negative impacts of wind turbines will be minimal and the environmental and economic benefits of having wind parks should outweigh concerns about property rights and zoning.
Phasing out fossil fuel
DTE Energy is one of the largest energy providers in the state and provides electric service for the Thumb region and for southeastern Michigan.
Earlier this year, the company announced that by 2050, it plans to have net zero carbon emissions.
“We’re going to see all of our fossil fuel plants being retired by about 2040, plus or minus, and a lot of the uptake after the fossil fuel plants – coal, things like that – will be renewable energy: wind and solar,” said Matt Wagner, manager of renewable energy at DTE Energy.
DTE currently has 14 wind parks in Michigan, with plans for four more to come online by the end of 2020. Right now, wind power represents 13% of DTE’s total energy generation. That number is expected to increase during the next five to 10 years.
“Wind power is the most cost-effective technology for renewable energy,” Wagner said. “We think wind power is important and it will represent a significant portion, in the end, of our goals.”
To achieve those goals, DTE will have to build more wind turbines, and, for that, the company needs land.
Wagner said DTE takes wind studies, land-use assessments and local zoning requirements into account in determining areas for potential wind parks.
“There are a lot of people that say that these companies just come in and stick turbines wherever they want. That couldn’t be further from the truth. First of all we have to have agreements, and then second of all we have to abide by the requirements specified by state and local and federal agencies… it’s a pretty rigorous process,” Wagner said. “When you layer what we call constraints together, what you’ll find is there’s very little room for wind turbines.”
More than 300 landowners, representing 38,000 acres in Branch County have signed voluntary lease agreements with DTE.
Wagner said that DTE has talked to thousands of people in Branch County about wind energy and has found a lot of support.
According to the company, 70% of registered voters in Union Township, 60% of registered voters in Sherwood Township, 65% of registered voters in Matteson Township resident and 60% of registered voters in Batavia Township are in favor of wind projects in the area.
But there is also a vocal contingent of residents in the area who are not in favor of the turbines.
“A company’s goals should not come at the expense of nonparticipants,” Concerned Citizens of Branch County spokeswoman Pam Reed said. “A private company’s goal should not come at the reduction of my property value and should not come at me not being able to enjoy my home and my setting as I’m zoned to do.”
While some properties can see a decrease in value during the planning phases of a nearby wind project, several academic studies have found no statistically significant decrease in average property values due to wind turbines.
Some real estate groups, though, have found a decrease in property values, and a 2014 study by the London School of Economics found that properties could see up to a 12% decrease in value.
Another study found that more than 50% of people in Michigan perceive wind turbines as having a negative impact on property values.
Reed also pointed to the impact of overhead transmission lines, which have been shown to decrease property values.
“Why would that not transfer to something that is three to four times the height and that also makes noise and has shadow flicker?” she said, referring to the flickering effect caused by a wind turbines rotating blades.
According to Wagner, the studies that have found a negative impact on property values are not as rigorous as those that have found no statistically significant affect, and companies overseas don’t provide the same incentives for wind development in terms of lease agreement payments and tax revenue.
But Reed sees wind turbines as pieces of industrial machinery that don’t belong in a rural setting. She and other residents are concerned about sound of the turbines and their appearance and the flickering effect caused by the rotating blades. They also have concerns about safety issues and wildlife hazards.
“DTE will say, ‘Well, it’s the farmer’s right to do what they want with their land,’… but if you live in a zoned township or county, that’s not how it works,” Reed said. “If you live in a zoned community, you have zoning to make sure whatever it is you want to do on your property doesn’t infringe on your neighbors property.”
‘I didn’t know yet’
Patti Miller and her husband are farmers in Matteson Township. They were approached by DTE about signing a lease agreement for their property.
“My first thought was,’You know, gosh, we want to do what we can for your world, so this all sounds really good,'” she said.
Miller said she and her husband agreed to think about it, but, the more they looked into turbines, the more questions they had.
“First of all, how much freedom they’re having to this property that my husband put his blood, sweat and tears into,” she said. “And I didn’t know yet about what these things do and what they’re like when they’re less than a mile from your property.”
Miller said that one of her biggest concerns was shadow flicker and turbines being “shoehorned” into the area.
“We have no plans to move from our 100-year old farm house. This is precious to us,” she said. “It’s DTE and where they want to place these that I have a problem with, but if… a quarter mile away, there’s two, or three, or four or five of these…shadow flicker is going to be potentially affecting my life…I don’t want DTE thinking that mitigation is giving me a shade for my window. I have a right to enjoy my deck and my property without, you know, avoiding shadow flicker.”
Wagner said that when choosing a location for turbines, the company considers how turbines will change the scenery and their distance from homes. He also said that DTE offers a participation agreement for property owners who are in the vicinity of the wind project.
“We recognize that it does change the land and want them to be able to share the benefits,” he said. “There are a lot of people saying, you know, this is having an impact on me, but there are landowners who have farmed their land of a century, and they have hundreds of acres, and they also stand firm behind their right to enjoy and use their property the way they’d like to. So it’s a balance.”
Others in Branch County support the wind turbines.
‘Just an environmental thing’
Eric Bronson farms 1,100 acres between Sherwood and Union townships. He farms 750 acres of land for his parents, who leased about 1,100 acres to DTE for wind turbines.
“From my discussions with them, it was mostly just an environmental thing,” he said. “There’s not a lot of money involved in it, but it’s the right thing to do for the environment with global warming and the need for alternative energy.”
Bronson said DTE has been willing to work with landowners to build turbines in areas where they won’t interfere with farming.
“If they put them in the fence rows between different farmers’ fields… to me that’s a win-win,” he said. “They’d put a road in that could be used by the farmers. It wouldn’t interfere in anyway.”
In Bronson’s opinion, wind turbines won’t have a significant impact on the character of the land because they wouldn’t interfere with the crops, nor does he think they’d have much of an effect on wildlife movement.
“I think the people that are opposed to it, it’s not about true health or safety issues.” he said. “They don’t want to look at them.They don’t like the way they look… and to me… I think that’s kind of a self-centered, selfish view of the things that need to be done to try to save this planet from global warming. To me, it’s all about trying to get out of the fossil fuels and get into renewable energy.”
Miller said she wants to protect the environment, but she also think important to protect her home.
“The bottom line is, we have one chance to get it right.” she said. “If the ordinances are too permissive… we could have them hovering over us at way too close a distance.”
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