MONTCALM TOWNSHIP – An effort to establish a temporary moratorium against any wind turbine projects in this township failed to gain any steam Wednesday.
During the monthly meeting of the Montcalm Township Board held via Zoom, Trustee Brian Cousineau was given the floor by Supervisor Doug Crowley to speak on the subject of a moratorium on wind energy projects.
Cousineau said he felt compelled to speak on the issue based on concerns brought forth by residents at previous township and Planning Commission meetings, at which numerous complaints have been made regarding the township’s pending amendment to its wind energy ordinance.
The amendment to the ordinance was drafted in August 2020 by the Planning Commission but has yet to receive a public hearing as the commission is now considering additional alterations and restrictions in relation to wind turbines following public outcry.
That means the township’s current wind ordinance, drafted in 2013, remains the law within the township – something which concerns Cousineau.
“In looking at our current ordinance and, whether you include or exclude the current amendments, in my opinion, I think we have a lot left to do with our ordinance in regards to wind energy,” he said. “Currently, I don’t think it does anything to protect the township and the citizens and it also doesn’t do anything to protect landowners if they (wind energy companies) were to come in and put up wind turbines.”
Cousineau cited specific concerns with both the current and proposed ordinance, including the decommissioning of wind turbines, insurance requirements and additional points of health and safety in regards to noise and shadow flicker from turbines. He feels the township board should take action to prevent any such development at this time.
“My thought is until we can get the ordinance situation figured out, that we should have a moratorium on any potential actions related to wind energy at this time,” he said. “If somebody actually came in right now and built a bunch of wind turbines, we could be dealing with problems down the road.”
Crowley said he does not disagree with the concerns brought forward; however, he was not in the same state of mind regarding the implementation of a moratorium.
“I guess I don’t understand the moratorium,” he said. “Nobody is coming in at this time to put one (wind turbine) up and the very soonest I would say that would happen would be a year or a year-and-half out, so we have plenty of time to work on our ordinance. That’s my opinion.”
While Virginia-based Apex Wind Energy is working to establish a wind farm projected of 75 wind turbines at 600 feet in height throughout 10 townships in Montcalm County, the company has stated it is awaiting approval from multiple townships regarding wind energy zoning ordinances with a goal that the project be completed in 2024.
When Crowley asked if the board’s other members – Clerk Jessica Shearer, Treasurer Rose Hyde and Trustee Ed Hansen – cared to offer any input, no one spoke up.
Cousineau then reiterated his desire for a moratorium.
“I think the idea here is it stalls any potential actions until it’s figured out because obviously, we don’t know how long it’s going to take the Planning Commission to review anything,” he said. “If someone were to come in and ask for a permit, they could do that under the current ordinance, which isn’t adequate enough.”
Cousineau then made a motion for the board to establish a temporary moratorium. After about 10 seconds of silence, Crowley reiterated that a motion was on the table.
After another five seconds of silence, Crowley announced Cousineau’s motion had failed due to a lack of support.
As the meeting then entered into public comment, several township residents and some from outside the township, with more than 50 people attending the virtual meeting in total, voiced their displeasure with the board’s lack of action.
“I want to congratulate Brian. That (moratorium) was a great idea and it’s too bad you didn’t get a second or a third on your recommendation,” township resident Greg Swartz said. “We as a rural community, do we as a public have an opportunity to vote on wind turbines in our community or do you guys just railroad this through with your friends and then we have to deal with it for 30 years? Is this something we’re going to get a chance to vote on?”
Crowley said while the public will have a chance to offer input when a public hearing is held on the amended ordinance, the public will not have an actual vote on the issue, as per the township’s ordinances, the Planning Commission drafts all zoning laws in the township.
According to state law, local zoning ordinances must protect the “health, safety and welfare” of residents; however, communities cannot create “exclusionary zoning” ordinances that effectively ban an otherwise legal activity, such as the construction of wind turbines.
If the amended ordinance were to pass, a grassroots effort by township residents could result in a ballot referendum during a subsequent election, providing the public with a chance to vote to overturn the ordinance; however, that result would not prohibit turbines in the township, but would instead require a new wind energy ordinance be drafted, which can be restrictive, but cannot contain exclusionary zoning.
Swartz also took issue with the Planning Commission’s process of drafting the amended ordinance due to Commission Chairman Richard Karnatz having signed a development-phase lease agreement with Apex before drafting the ordinance.
Despite township attorney Jeffrey Sluggett of Bloom Sluggett in Grand Rapids having provided an opinion to the township board that Karnatz’s actions did not violate the Planning Commission’s bylaws regarding issues of an alleged conflict of interest, former township trustee Tim Rau, now a resident of Kansas, pointed to Apex’s contribution in helping to draft the amended ordinance.
Karnatz has been upfront that Apex had a role in reviewing the amended ordinance – the meeting minutes of the Aug. 5, 2020, Planning Commission meeting reflect this – as Apex contacted Karnatz directly with suggestions to be considered in the amended ordinance.
But Rau said he believes Apex’s involvement indicates a clear conflict of interest on behalf of the entire Planning Commission.
“The Montcalm Township Planning Commission not only sought out input from Apex, they modified the wind turbine ordinance in August using the email that was sent to the Planning Commission by Apex, so essentially Apex was rewriting the ordinance that they are supposed to be governed by,” said Rau while holding up a physical copy of the email. “It (amended ordinance) went word for word from the email that Apex sent to the Planning Commission, directed to Dick Karnatz.
“It is also in my opinion unethical for someone on the Planning Commission to have a direct hand in writing that ordinance who stands the potential to make several hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Following several other comments from individuals speaking out against wind turbines, and one resident speaking in favor of them, Montcalm Township resident Brian Blomstrom went as far as to say the board’s lack of action on a moratorium is an indication of support for wind turbines.
“It shouldn’t have been a big issue to make that motion to move forward (with a moratorium),” he said. “It looks like the tracks have already been laid. We have four board members standing on one side of the tracks and one board member standing on the other side of the tracks. You guys have already put your feet in the sand, individually, and let us know as your constituents where you stand in regards to the whole wind project. I’m very sad to see what I saw tonight.”
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