PINE TOWNSHIP – A University of Michigan lecturer says Pine Township’s zoning ordinance suggests wind turbines are a “good fit” for the community, and she recommended township officials make sure this is what the community actually wants because if not – “then there’s a whole lot of changes that probably need to be made.”
The Pine Township Board hosted a wind energy webinar Tuesday evening presented by Sarah Mills, who earned her doctorate in urban and regional planning at U of M, where her dissertation studied the impact that wind energy projects have on farming communities. Mills, the senior project manager at the U of M Graham Sustainability Institute, presented information and answered multiple questions during the two-hour presentation, which was funded as part of a grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE).
The webinar came as Apex Clean Energy officials continue to work on a proposed 75-turbine wind farm using up to 50,000 leased acres of land in about 10 townships in Montcalm County. Apex officials say the project will bring an investment of more than $600 million into the county.
Tuesday’s presentation was held via a Zoom webinar platform, which didn’t allow participants to see how many other people were virtually participating or what questions were being asked (other than the questions Mills answered). This set-up was pre-arranged between Pine Township Supervisor Bill Drews and Mills, according to emails obtained by members of Montcalm County Citizens United and the Daily News via the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA).
“We have found that a totally open ‘chat’ is not a good idea right now, as the organized ‘anti’ group bombs it with their false information and comments, distracting from the presentation,” Drews wrote in a March 2 email to Mills.
Mills responded via email on March 3, suggesting that questions be submitted via Zoom’s Q&A function, noting “GoToWebinar is nice, as no one can see which questions were asked.”
“In terms of Zoom set-up, I agree open chat isn’t good,” Mills wrote. “Let’s talk in real-time about what’s best and what might comply with the Open Meetings Act.
A GOOD FIT FOR COMMUNITY?
Residents have repeatedly been asking Pine Township officials to update the township’s zoning ordinance to address modern wind technology since the zoning ordinance hasn’t been updated since 2016 (find the ordinance at cszservices.com/pine-township.html).
Pine Township’s “community vision” portion of its master plan from 2009 states that, “Pine Township will be a community that is firmly committed to the preservation of its agricultural and natural features; we will strive to protect those qualities that define our community by managing new growth in a manner that is consistent with our community character, environmentally sensitive and economically sound.”
Mills noted while the ag land preservation language of the community vision statement suggests turbines are a good fit for the township, “community character” is a phrase commonly used in township master plans to suggest that those communities don’t want to make major changes and so turbines might not be a welcome addition.
The township’s ordinance says wind-powered electrical generators are exempt from height regulations in all districts and allows noise levels for wind energy systems to be up to 55 db(A) measured at the property line or the lease unit boundary.
“My reading of Pine Township’s zoning ordinance suggests that wind is compatible in almost all districts of the township,” Mills noted. “You have an ordinance that suggests that this is a good fit for your community. Zoning isn’t set in stone. You could change your ordinance, but generally it should be changed based on shifting community goals or shifts of technology or what’s known about the impacts of that technology. That’s a question for you all. The technology has gotten taller over time. You don’t currently have a zoning ordinance that ties into a specific height, there’s not a height restriction.”
The Daily News submitted a question during the webinar, asking Mills if she recommends any updates or additions to Pine Township’s zoning ordinance regarding wind energy.
“Do we still think wind turbines fit (in the Pine Township community)?” Mills responded. “Because the current zoning ordinance suggests that wind turbines fit. If that’s not how people feel, then there’s a whole lot of changes that probably need to be made because the ordinance is not sending that message right now.”
Mills, who is a planning commissioner herself, suggested township officials also consider the following regarding its zoning ordinance:
• Update specific decommissioning costs and how often the wind developer is considering the amount of money it would take to decommission turbines. Pine Township’s zoning ordinance says wind energy system owners or operators shall complete decommissioning within one year of the end of the useful life and all decommissioning expenses are the responsibility of the owners and operators. Mills noted the renewables market will likely change over time for better or for worse.
“That’s a common concern in communities and it’s not a show-stopper in my mind to have something that reconsiders that,” she said of updating decommissioning costs.
• Request that a wind energy developer ask the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that they be allowed to implement an aircraft detection lighting system (ADLS) so blinking red lights on turbines can be turned off or reduced during nighttime hours. Mills noted that this is newly available technology which is at the discretion of the FAA.
“For communities where night lighting is a concern, that’s something that is a pretty easy inclusion,” she said. “I think the impacts of those lights are felt further beyond the township. You can see the lights from the turbines further at night than during the day. I feel like that’s a pretty low-hanging fruit that could be included or asked of the developer.”
Mills was also asked by audience members whether she would encourage Pine Township officials to hear from people with different views and opinions on wind turbines. Residents have repeatedly asked the township board that someone such as Kevon Martis or Norm Stephens be allowed to present concerns and recommendations about the township’s wind ordinance.
Martis is a senior policy fellow at Virginia-based Energy & Environmental Legal Institute and is the founder and executive director of the Interstate Informed Citizen Coalition. Stephens is a resident of Almer Township, which NextEra Energy Researches sued in federal court over that township’s wind ordinance (the township won). However, Drews has called both Martis and Stephens “biased.”
“I think that having discussions is helpful,” Mills responded. “Everybody has a bias. Any speaker that you would bring has a bias with them (Mills freely admitted that her bias is toward farmland preservation). Whether it is a speaker or diverse information sources, I think it’s really important to run it by the sniff test – whether the person is talking only about the pros or only about the cons. All energy sources have positive and negative impacts at the local level.”
WIND TURBINE BENEFITS
Mills presented her research from studying nine Michigan townships and whether the tax base changed due to wind turbine revenue. The changes increased by 16% in one township to a maximum of more than 400% in another township.
“The most revenue is going to come in year one,” she noted. “By year 12, you’re down to 30% – as opposed to no revenue at all. It does decline over time.”
Mills said while all townships benefitted economically from wind turbines for a period of time, the visibility of those benefits depends on which services local municipalities decide to improve with their new money. She noted that one township she studied introduced trash collection, which was a very visible service to most people, while other townships used the money for less-visible projects.
Mills noted that Michigan’s State Tax Commission tax multiplier table has seen three changes in four years and could change again, which local officials and wind developers have no control over. Gratiot County, along with multiple other municipalities, intermediate school districts, libraries and individuals have formed the Michigan Renewable Energy Collaborative to create a more conservative table.
Regarding the creation of jobs, Mills said wind farm projects do create construction jobs, which in turn benefit local restaurants and hotels. She said long-term wind-related jobs average about one job for every 10 or 20 MW of power. For context, Apex’s proposed 375 MW wind farm in Montcalm County would create 18 to 37 jobs based on Mills’ estimate.
WIND TURBINE CONCERNS
Mills noted noise and health are two of the most common concerns people express regarding wind turbines. Of the paid and unpaid people she surveyed during her doctorate research, she said 48 percent agreed or strongly agreed that turbines create noise pollution, while 52 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement.
“People are divided,” she summarized regarding noise concerns.
Regarding possible health effects, Mills said most medical research about wind turbine impacts on human health find that there’s not a direct link regarding noise or flicker.
“But there’s a lot of research talking about an indirect link,” she added. “Some people are more annoyed, are highly annoyed by having wind turbines nearby and that can have physiological impacts.”
Wildlife is another concern, primarily how turbines might affect birds and bats. Mills said this really depends on where turbines are located. She noted that the National Audubon Society “strongly supports wind energy that is sited and operated properly to avoid, minimize and mitigate effectively for the impact on birds, other wildlife and the places they need now and in the future. (Read more at audubon.org/news/wind-power-and-birds.)
The visual impact of turbines was another topic that was nearly split down the middle in Mills’ research – of paid and unpaid people she surveyed, 49 percent strongly agreed or agreed that turbines create visual/aesthetic problems, while 51 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement.
“It doesn’t surprise me that there’s differences of opinions about how wind energy fits (in Pine Township and Montcalm County),” Mills said. “Often when people have moved to a place for the view, they want to enjoy the night sky and they want to get out of the city and enjoy a pretty landscape – they are more likely to see wind energy as not fitting in with that. However, other people place more of a productive value on their landscape.”
Mills said the “authoritative U.S. source” on the topic of wind turbines and property values published in 2013 (which can be read at real-analytics.com/Wind%20Turbine%20Study.pdf) says there’s no significant impact on property values, but there’s “mixed evidence” on this topic in other countries (such as this 2018 published study from Canada: le.uwpress.org/content/94/4/496.refs).
Mills noted that there’s no Michigan-related study on this topic to date.
WHAT IS THE LOCAL GOAL?
Mills summarized her presentation by emphasizing that wind energy is an economic development tool, but individual communities need to consider how that fits into their own master plan and overall strategy for future development.
“If the goal is to sustain agriculture … then wind can fit,” she said. “It is providing farmers with diversified income. However … if your goal is for substantial residential development or growth of tourism, wind may not be the right fit. You’re really unlikely to satisfy everyone no matter what you do. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We tell people to beware of completely zoning out a land use … but making it really hard is OK.”
A recording of Mills’ presentation to Pine Township can be viewed at youtube.com/channel/UCpYvDhpyVVhyiMqDtSssEqg.
Mills can be contacted with wind energy-related questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.