MONTCALM TOWNSHIP – As the question of whether Montcalm County should embrace or deny renewable wind energy is debated by its residents, local planners are taking steps to potentially clear the way for the construction of wind turbines.
During Wednesday evening’s Montcalm Township Board meeting, Planning Commission Chairman Richard Karnatz informed the board that a public hearing will need to be scheduled to amend the township’s current “Private and Commercial Wind Energy Conversion Facilities” ordinance.
“There will be a public hearing involving changes to the wording of the wind energy section of the zoning ordinance, which was put together in 2008 and 2010 and adopted in 2013,” Karnatz said. “It’s a little bit obsolete, so we are just updating it.”
The public hearing – scheduled for 7 p.m. Dec. 2 at Montcalm Township Hall – comes after the Planning Commission voted unanimously during its Aug. 5 meeting to review and amend the ordinance after Apex Clean Energy, a wind energy company based out of Charlottesville, Virginia, expressed interest in Montcalm County as the host of its next potential commercial wind farm.
The company is looking to invest $600 million in its proposed “Montcalm Wind” project, which at this time is projected to construct 75 wind turbines spread out across 11 townships in the county and generate 375 MW of energy – about 95,000 homes – upon completion projected for 2023.
According to Karnatz, the Planning Commission researched the commercial wind turbine ordinance in Pine River Township, located north of Alma in Gratiot County, which is home to the Pine River wind park which spans more than 40,000 acres of land and encompasses the towns of St. Louis, Alma and Shepherd between Gratiot and Isabella counties, featuring a total of 65 wind turbines operated by DTE Energy. Pine Township is home to approximately 27 of the turbines within that wind park.
Karnatz said in drafting the amendments (see accompanying info box on Page 3), the Planning Commission has also received input and suggestions from “wind developers,” specifically, Apex. The Aug. 5 Planning Commission meeting minutes reflect this, stating: “Development Manager Apex Clean Energy reviewed our zoning ordinance and provided feedback via email.”
With the Township Board voting unanimously to schedule the public hearing, township residents Brian and Olivia Blomstrom pleaded that the Planning Commission and Township Board members take into consideration the concerns of residents before approving the amendments.
“I hope the Township Board and Planning Commission exercises due diligence and has good communication with everybody in the township,” Brian said. “There are individuals I believe in the township that are concerned about what this may do both for the environment and property values, things along those lines. This is not something where people are building in their backyard behind a fence, this is something that is going in the air that can be seen from miles and miles around. That being said, it can be disturbing to those individuals, to have their way of life impacted by those who want to make some money on their land.”
Karnatz defended the updating and amending of the wind ordinance.
“The Planning Commission’s job is not to look at today, it’s to look at from today out into the future, whether that be next year, five years or 10 years down the road,” he said. “It’s a zoning ordinance to control what goes on with people’s property. What you can do with your backyard, from how many horses you can have on your parcel to what can benefit the township for both growth and revenue, those are things the planning commission looks at. It doesn’t look at how much money this guy over here can make on his acreage that may or may not receive a wind energy tower.”
Karnatz said with state and federal governments’ increasing the amount of energy required to be from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, rural Michigan should be prepared to potentially host such energy parks.
“The government is going to mandate green energy – they already have,” he said. “It’s going to be a part of the future whether we like it or not. So the planning commission’s job is to look at all those things and try and decide what is the best benefit for this township, down the road in the future.”
Potential conflict of interest
As the chairman of the five-member Planning Commission, Karnatz has had a direct role in working to amend the township’s commercial wind ordinance.
Regarding a potential conflict of interest, Karnatz confirmed with the Daily News on Thursday that he signed a development-phase lease agreement in March with Apex for property he owns.
According to Albert Jongewaard, a development manager with Apex, each lease agreement pays property owners “a few bucks” per acre annually. For the recently-completed Isabella Wind project in Isabella County, property owners received $6 per acre in their agreements.
While Karnatz has signed a lease agreement with Apex, as well as Apex having directly contributed to assisting with the proposed amended changes to the township’s wind ordinance, Karnatz would not go as far as to say there’s a conflict of interest with him voting on the issue.
“I can’t give you an answer on that right now,” Karnatz told the Daily News. “Let me just say one thing, I will run the meeting. It’s a public hearing and we’re there to listen to people. We’re not there to argue with them. The public hearing is for the public to speak about the amendments and nothing else. When the vote comes, I will make a decision at that point in time (on whether to vote). I will not do anything illegal, I will not do anything that will compromise these changes if they get voted through. I will follow meeting laws to the ’T.’”
Karnatz defended his signing of a lease with Apex, comparing it to oil and gas leases he has signed in the past, and said it “absolutely” does not constitute “buying off” a member of the Planning Commission.
“It’s not a lease that says they are going to put windmills (turbines) on my property. It’s an exploration type of lease,” he said. “It just gives Apex the right – if they develop – to have first rights on my property. I’ve got nothing to hide, the township has nothing to hide.”
Karnatz also defended the proposed amendments to the ordinance.
“Some of those changes are actually more stringent than what the original one was,” he said.
Karnatz pointed to changing the measurement of decibel levels from property lines to occupied structures as a way of ensuring noise levels would be regulated for every township resident.
“It should be the noise from an inhabited residence, not a property line,” he said. “These changes are to bring it (ordinance) up to current standards today. Did Apex help us? Yes, they offered us some suggestions … I don’t remember if we went word for word, but we all agreed that’s the way we should go.”
Karnatz said on a personal level, he believes if turbines were to be constructed in Montcalm Township, they would serve as a financial benefit to the community.
“My viewpoint is things are changing in this world and we probably need the renewable energy,” he said. “If somebody is going to get some money from it, why shouldn’t it be the local communities and schools in our area? And let’s face it, if Apex someday finds enough wind here to put (turbines) up, if it contributes to our school system or helps with our fire department, then we don’t have to pay higher taxes.”
As an example of receiving property tax revenue from wind turbines, Gratiot County, which saw its first wind turbine park come to fruition in 2012, has reported additional revenues of more than $9 million since that time from wind turbine taxes alone.
If the Planning Commission approves the proposed amendments, the Township Board would then have to adopt the amended ordinance at a subsequent meeting.
Township Supervisor Doug Crowley said he does not believe there are any conflicts of interest in regards to township board members and the wind energy ordinance.
“I know I haven’t signed a lease and I don’t think anyone else on the board would have, either,” Crowley told the Daily News.
Proposed changes at a glance
The proposed changes to Montcalm Township’s wind ordinance include:
• Removing a requirement that proposed sites have a minimum wind rating of 3 according to the U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
• Remove the maximum 400-foot height requirement for commercial wind turbines.
• Changing a requirement that all wind turbines shall be set back a minimum distance from property lines instead to “non-participating” property lines. The minimum distance is defined as “a distance equal to the height of the wind turbine, as measured from the normal ground elevation at the wind turbine base to the highest point of the wind turbine including to a blade tip in its nearest position,” per the township’s ordinance.
• Including a definition for “non-participating” property line, which reads: “Real property, the owner of which has not entered into a written contract with the developer whereby the property owner is compensated for accommodating wind system equipment.”
• Changing a requirement that noise levels from turbines shall not exceed 55 decibels measured along “property lines” to instead be measured from “any occupied structure.”
• Changing the siting of wind turbines in a manner to “minimize” shadow flicker from the blades on any road or any building on any adjacent property at the time the application is considered instead to “no more than 30 hours per year.”
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