MONTCALM TOWNSHIP – Planners in this township are prepared to go back to the drawing board following public outcry over its wind ordinance.
During the March 3 virtual meeting of the Montcalm Township Planning Commission – its first meeting since August 2020 – members concluded that neither the township’s current wind energy ordinance (adopted in 2013) nor a proposed amendment drafted by the Commission last August, are strong enough to protect township residents and property owners.
Chairman Richard Karnatz said several items specifically need to be addressed when it comes to the potential of wind turbines making their way to the township, including decibel levels, setback distances, turbine height, aircraft detection lighting, shadow flicker, performance bonds and permit fees.
Karnatz said the Planning Commission will also consider recommendations from township attorney Jeffrey Sluggett of Bloom Sluggett in Grand Rapids, as well as updated wind energy recommendations from the Michigan State University Extension released in December 2020, in evaluating the ordinance. Commissioners agreed more stringent requirements are needed in the township’s ordinance.
“I think we do have to look a lot harder on a lot of different things,” Commissioner Robert Hemmes said. “We just got back from the attorney what he is recommending to change and I haven’t really had a chance to look at his recommendations thoroughly. The draft we put out there months ago, I think we’re going to have to modify it significantly.”
Regarding noise emissions, the current wind ordinance requires turbines not to exceed 55 decibels on the dB(A) scale. Karnatz would like to see that level lowered to 45 decibels and be measured from any inhabited residence.
In determining height of turbines, the current ordinance sets a limit at 400 feet; however, the proposed amendment removed any height requirements.
Karnatz said that change was made to accommodate taller wind turbines proposed by Virginia-based Apex Wind Energy, which has claimed that if it could construct turbines at that height throughout Montcalm County, its proposed “Montcalm Wind” farm would consist of 75 wind turbines at 600 feet in height spread throughout 10 townships as opposed to about 125 turbines at 400 feet in height.
“The height maybe needs to be looked at,” Karnatz admitted. “We pulled the 400 feet out and basically left it unlimited.”
Karnatz would like to see the new ordinance incorporate aircraft detection lighting so lights on turbines would not be flashing constantly in hours of darkness.
Regarding shadow flicker from turbines, the current ordinance requires that turbines be located in a way that shadow flicker to any occupied buildings occurs no more than 30 hours per year to minimize shadow flicker from the blades on any road or on any building on an adjacent property existing at the time the application is considered.
However, the proposed amendment removed the condition that specified a requirement to minimize shadow flicker on roads or buildings on adjacent properties.
In terms of setbacks of turbines, the current ordinance would require a minimum distance from all non-participating property lines and above-ground public electrical and communication lines, 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.
Karnatz said he would not be opposed to having more specific setback requirements in the ordinance.
“We can put a setback on there, but really the sound level is going to determine the setbacks too,” he said. “But it’s probably good to have a setback in footage.”
Commissioners agreed to wait until they meet again on May 5 to consider both recommendations from the township attorney, as well as from MSU Extension.
The recommendations put forth by Extension include several items yet to have been discussed by the Planning Commission, such as responsibilities and cost related to the decommissioning of turbines.
While Township Supervisor Doug Crowley has promised residents that notification for the public hearing regarding the amended ordinance will be included with the summer tax bill sent to property owners, Karnatz said that would only come to fruition if the public hearing were to be scheduled in advance.
“I’m not sure there’s going to be a public hearing in August (as planned),” Karnatz said. “If we’re going to change everything … that’s not to say there won’t be a public information meeting, but a public hearing may not be done until everything is modified. I don’t see it happening (in August).”
Following the discussion, public comment was opened and lasted for nearly an hour with nearly 60 participants in attendance. The majority of comments focused on keeping turbines out of the township.
However, Karnatz emphasized that the Planning Commission must work to develop an ordinance that protects residents, but also doesn’t outright prohibit turbines, as that would be against state law.
“You can’t outlaw it,” he said. “I mean, you can do that, but you just open the township up to a lawsuit from a possible company or people on the other side (of this issue).”
“I agree completely,” Hemmes added. “It’s something we can’t prohibit, and not only can’t we prohibit, we have to be reasonable to all parties.”
“So we have a balancing act here,” Karnatz said. “We have to balance the ordinance with the township and the residents to take care of the safety and everything else and yet make something doable, if they (wind energy companies) want to do it. That’s why I keep mentioning – we have to cover all the bases for the township to make sure we don’t get involved in lawsuits.”
Grand Rapids resident Robert Scott, who owns property on Nevins Lake in Sidney Township, encouraged commissioners to work toward developing an ordinance that would allow wind turbines, but not to the scale that Apex is proposing.
“I don’t think you have to draft an ordinance that accommodates Apex,” Scott said. “I agree that you have to put an ordinance in place that accommodates wind turbines, but not necessarily the kind of wind turbines that Apex wants to put in your township.”
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