MAPLE VALLEY TOWNSHIP – The Maple Valley Township Board’s first-ever Zoom meeting attracted more than 70 participants, ran nearly three hours long and was heavily focused on audience concerns over the township’s new wind energy ordinance – which is the process of going to a voter referendum.
Monday evening’s meeting also featured repeated “back door” accusations against township officials – a concern which wasn’t helped when the board voted 3-0 to appoint Ben Newell as a new township board member to succeed Joe Tatar, who recently resigned after moving out of the township.
Newell – who was sitting in the same room as Supervisor John Schwandt and Treasurer June Miller during Monday’s meeting – was immediately appointed without discussion over a second candidate, Andi Knapp, who was present via Zoom. Trustee Lee Frandsen was also present via Zoom while Clerk Shirley Sanders was absent.
Vicky Douglas of Maple Valley Township questioned why the board appointed Newell over Knapp.
“Ben Newell’s family has signed leases (with Apex Clean Energy) on, like, a lot of land,” Douglas pointed out. “Was that any reason for the determination in picking Ben for the position and not Andi?”
Schwandt said the decision to appoint Newell was because Knapp only threw in her name at the last minute.
This led Penny Bassett of Maple Valley Township to question whether the trustee opening was ever posted on the township’s website or Facebook (it wasn’t) and asked how Newell even knew about it.
“I asked Ben if he was interested because he’d come to us before saying he was interested in township and government,” Schwandt responded.
“So you didn’t post it anywhere for anyone else to have the opportunity?” Bassett pressed.
“It’s an appointed position by the board,” Schwandt reiterated.
“We’re doing the best we can to keep going here,” Schwandt added, visibly frustrated. “If we didn’t have a wind energy program going right now, none of you would be here for this meeting. We usually only have two or three people show up for our meetings.”
“That’s because when we elect you, we assume you have our best interests at heart,” Bassett responded. “With all the comments tonight, you can’t tell me you have the best interest of Maple Valley Township.”
Bassett was referring to multiple comments made during the meeting about the township’s controversial wind ordinance.
The Maple Valley Township Board in November 2020 approved a wind energy ordinance update based on the recommendation of its Planning Commission. That ordinance is now in the process of going to a voter referendum after concerned residents gathered signatures.
On Monday, the township board voted to approve the ballot language tentatively set to go to voters in May, which states, “On Nov. 9, 2020, the Maple Valley Township Board adopted Ordinance No. 24, which would amend the township zoning ordinance to regulate the development of wind energy facilities. Do you wish to approve Ordinance No. 24?”
Tim Simmons, who didn’t provide his township of residence, asked what a yes or no vote would mean regarding the upcoming referendum. Township attorney Bill Fahey said if the new ordinance is voted down, the township will then revert to its older zoning ordinance, which was created in 2010 and only addresses residential turbines – not commercial turbines.
“If you vote yes, you are voting for the ordinance, which is the process by which any wind project would be approved,” Fahey explained. “If you vote against that ordinance, then basically you’re saying that the ordinance as it presently existed before Nov. 9 should continue to be what it was before. The township wanted to pass an ordinance to more specifically address wind power.
“If you vote, you’re not voting against wind turbines, you’re voting against this ordinance,” Fahey emphasized. “That’s the way that the statute is written.”
Some people who own property in Maple Valley Township but are not registered to vote there voiced concern that they will not be allowed to vote on the referendum.
“The only people who get to vote in that election, just like any other township election, are the people who are registered to vote in that township,” Fahey said.
Many audience members questioned how the Planning Commission created the wind energy ordinance update, which was modeled on Gratiot County’s Pine River Township ordinance.
“Why did the board to choose to model the wind ordinance from Pine River Township?” Knapp asked. “Who suggested looking at that one in particular? What other wind and solar ordinances were reviewed?
“We looked at many, many, many, different ones and we …” Schwandt began to respond, but Knapp interrupted him.
“The only thing that was referenced was the Pine River ordinance,” she said. “No other ordinance was referenced in the meeting.”
Schwandt said the Michigan Township Association recommended Maple Valley Township model its wind ordinance on the Pine River Township ordinance as the two townships are comparable.
“What other ones were looked at?” Knapp pressed. “As the public, we should know which ones were looked at for comparison because this one does not serve our residents.”
“I went on Google and put in ‘wind turbine ordinances’ and just started reading,” Schwandt responded.
Douglas pointed out previous Maple Valley Township meeting minutes state, “Apex likes the Pine River Township energy codes.”
“You said there are two sides to every story, but I’m not seeing it,” Douglas said to Schwandt. “What about the citizens? How much research has been done on the con side?”
Several audience members asked how they could read the new wind energy ordinance. Schwandt said he would try to personally deliver them a copy, as only the ordinance from 2010 is on the township’s website (maplevalleytownship.com).
Knapp asked why township board meeting minutes aren’t posted on the township’s website. While sporadic meeting minutes are posted online, an error message pops up when you click on them.
“We’re working on the website,” Schwandt said. “We’re trying to get that figured out.”
DUE DILIGENCE QUESTIONS
Multiple audience members questioned whether township officials made any effort to look at the downside of wind turbines or to make sure the public was informed that this new ordinance was being considered.
Kris Herzog of Maple Valley Township asked township officials to explain the process of the ordinance being passed. Fahey said the township published a Planning Commission public hearing notice in the Daily News, the Planning Commission then held a public hearing and the township board then voted to adopt the ordinance, which it also published in the Daily News.
“The township has done everything that was required,” Fahey said.
Herzog asked if any township officials have signed leases with Apex, but Schwandt did not respond to this question.
Most audience members weren’t impressed with the responses they received from township officials about the process.
“I’m concerned about the due diligence that the board has put into finding out about the downsides of wind turbines,” Lorraine Worden of Maple Valley Township said. “I’m concerned that those questions have not been answered.”
“We could sit here and debate it all night long,” Schwandt responded. “We looked at stuff and we came up with what we thought was an ordinance that best suited our area. You people sound like we haven’t done anything. but we’ve put a lot of time and thought into that.”
“You as a board make it sound like you haven’t done anything,” Michael Worden of Maple Valley Township countered. “We haven’t heard one stitch of substantive input from the board about looking at both sides of this.
“John … you spend more time looking at a car than you do looking at this,” Worden declared. “Shame on the board.”
Some audience members were critical not only of township officials but also of local farmers.
“I think this is kind of a back door situation that has occurred and I’m concerned that the same thing is happening in Winfield Township where I live,” Sue Thomas said. “I think it’s pretty much a back door, underhanded deal. It’s another way for the farmers who have these large farms and crop dust over our lakes and causes our waters to be polluted and everything else, it’s another way for them to gain money. It’s a crime. It’s unfair. Your process is unfair. I think there should be a class-action lawsuit by all of these people who live in this township to stop something like this from going on.”
Robin Poulsen of Maple Valley Township gave one of the most emotional statements of the night.
“Does the board consider our township residential or agricultural or industrial?” she asked. “Because I just cannot understand why they would want to put any kind of turbines in an agricultural community like ours. I am just heartsick by this. I can’t hardly even sleep at night.”
“Do you honestly think that turbines belong in a rural agricultural township?” Poulsen asked again later in the meeting.
“I do believe there is a place for them,” Schwandt said. “The farmland belongs to the farmers. They’re the ones who brought it to us and wanted us to do something, so that’s what we’ve done.”
“I don’t feel you’ve gone any further than Pine River Township,” Poulsen responded. “I feel that you have worked behind all of our backs. I am just a nervous wreck about this. I can hardly even talk. I’m so upset about it.”
Poulsen noted that Miller, the township treasurer, enjoys sitting on her deck watching the eagles.
“The eagles aren’t going to be here very long,” Poulsen declared, tears choking her voice. “The blue herons aren’t going to be here very long. The swans aren’t going to be here very long. These monstrosities are going to come to our township and all of these things are going to be gone.”
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