MAPLE VALLEY TOWNSHIP – After hosting a stormy wind meeting in February via Zoom, followed by a vote to repeal the township’s controversial wind ordinance in March via Zoom, Maple Valley Township officials met for an in-person – but no less turbulent – meeting Thursday evening.
Three dozen people attended an unruly 90-minute meeting inside the freezing Coral Community Center (“We went over to Gratiot County and stood right underneath a turbine and this (Community Center) furnace was louder than that turbine,” Planning Commissioner Randy Davis told audience members, most of whom left their coats on).
The Planning Commission hasn’t met since last autumn and in the meantime John Schwandt, who was chairman of the Planning Commission, was elected supervisor of the Maple Valley Township Board last November, so Schwandt submitted his resignation as Planning Commission chairman before the start of Thursday’s meeting (as he can’t hold both positions at the same time).
The remaining four members of the Planning Commission (with Carolyn Kelsey absent due to illness) decided to make Roger Becker the new chairman and Andi Knapp – the newest member who was participating in her first meeting – the new vice chairwoman. As the Planning Commission began to move through roll call and reading previous meeting minutes, their quiet voices could not be heard in the spacious Community Center.
“Are you talking to us or are you talking to yourselves? Speak up!” a man yelled from the audience.
“We’re just doing basic stuff up here,” Davis responded. “Ninety-nine percent of you don’t even care about this stuff. When it comes to the wind, we’ll speak up.”
This comment did not go over well with audience members who began freely speaking their minds. An argument also ensued among audience members about whether the Planning Commission should have five or seven members.
“I think we should close this meeting, there’s more than 25 people here, ain’t that the law?” asked Maple Valley Township Zoning Administrator David Kelsey, who was seated in the front row next to Schwandt.
“That ended March 30th,” a woman in the audience responded.
The meeting continued with Becker reviewing some of the residents’ concerns that led to the township’s prior wind energy ordinance being repealed – sound limit, sound waves, height limit, setbacks (including setbacks around lakes) and turbine safety manuals.
Albert Jongewaard, senior development manager for Apex Clean Energy, was present and offered to answer questions from the audience – some of whom wanted to ask him questions and some of whom didn’t want him to speak at all. As Jongewaard attempted to speak, audience members spoke and argued among themselves and with Jongewaard at alternating volumes while members of the Planning Commission spoke quietly among themselves for a time and did nothing to bring back the meeting to order.
Only when audience members began standing up and yelling at each other did Becker attempt to restore order. Becker – who referred to turbines as “windmills” throughout the meeting – shared how he recently attended an Apex-hosted meeting at the Newell farm in Maple Valley Township. He said township officials want to hear from residents about what they would like to see in a new ordinance.
“I am open for suggestions for what people are wanting on this ordinance so that we can get some sort of an idea,” Becker said. “Obviously we’re going to have a lot of people who are not wanting windmills at all in this township. Myself, I could go either way, I don’t care. What I look at is what benefits this community, that’s why I’m on this Planning Commission. Economically, there’s a lot of opportunity with windmills. I also want to make sure that people are safe around our area. I want to listen to what you have to say.”
Penny Bassett of Maple Valley Township asked Jongewaard to explain how Apex defines “not by a lake” when it comes to turbine placement.
“When it comes to a community like this with a lake in Maple Valley Township, with lake residential zoning … we would normally be between a half mile to a quarter mile away from any lake,” Jongewaard responded (some audience members did not react favorably to this answer).
Another point of contention involved turbine safety manuals – residents would like a copy of the manual Apex plans to use, but Jongewaard said Apex doesn’t even have a turbine model picked out yet for Montcalm County.
“You’re asking for a safety manual that I can’t give you because we don’t have a turbine yet,” he summarized. “We haven’t selected a turbine model. I’m not blowing smoke.”
“What’s to stop you from putting more in?” another woman in the audience asked. “What guarantee do we have that you’re not going to be plugging them in and filling in the gaps everywhere else?”
Apex officials continue to work on a proposed 75-turbine wind farm – using turbines about 600 feet high – 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.
Jongewaard said Apex – and any wind energy company – has to go through an extensive federal review process in order to add power to a grid. He said it’s a four or five year process and quite expensive.
“We’ve already put a couple of million dollars into this process to do the review for the amount of power that we’re allowed to put on,” he noted. “We have paid for the permission to put 375 MW of electricity onto the grid here in Montcalm County.”
“You’re coming into our area, so why can’t you provide that information?” the woman pressed regarding a safety manual. “You have it, we need it. That’s the frustration.”
Jongewaard reiterated that Apex has not yet chosen a turbine model for Montcalm County.
“Turbines are designed with safety in mind, safety to be able to withstand hurricanes and tornadoes … the modern turbine has a winterized package which of course we use in Michigan, the modern turbine has sensors on it so you can shut off the entire turbine park,” he noted. “They’re pretty smart machines. If there’s ice accumulation, they can shut themselves off.”
“What happens if they catch on fire?” Bassett said. “If we call the fire department, is the fire department going to be able to come help us?”
Jongewaard said Apex will meet with local fire chiefs for a turbine training process and he noted the state of Michigan also has a response plan in place to address any issues.
“If this is going to be another Albert talk, I’ve heard that before,” interrupted Sheila Crooks of Douglass Township. “He doesn’t answer questions. Don’t ask him questions.”
“In all fairness, you guys are asking me the questions,” Jongewaard pointed out.
As Jongewaard continued to answer questions from audience members, Crooks interrupted him again but other audience members shouted her down as they wanted to hear his responses.
Jessica Kwekel of Cato Township tauntingly called Jongewaard “Apex Albert” when asking him how close he lives to a wind turbine.
“My name’s Albert, by the way,” Jongewaard said, turning to face Kwekel. “Apex Albert’s kind of clever, but I go by Albert. I don’t live personally next to a turbine.”
Vicki Douglass of Maple Valley Township handed out papers to Planning Commissioners regarding an upcoming informational wind energy meeting hosted by Kevon Martis and the Pine Township Coalition for Safe Energy at 7 p.m. on April 8 via Zoom (participants can use meeting ID 830 8807 7109 and passcode C5pPan).
“Who is this Kevon Martis?” Becker asked.
“He’s another researcher,” Douglass responded.
“I’d like to know who he’s being funded by,” Becker said.
“Pine Township is hosting this webinar, this informational meeting – the residents of Pine Township are hosting it,” Douglass responded. “The (Pine Township) board just had Sarah Mills on who never answered one question of any of my friends.”
Mills is the senior project manager at the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute and earned her doctorate in urban and regional planning (her dissertation studied the impact that wind energy projects have on farming communities). 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
“Could we get Kevin Beeson? He’s from Gratiot County,” Becker suggested, but Knapp responded “no” to this (Maple Valley Township’s now-repealed wind ordinance was modeled on Pine River Township’s ordinance, where Beeson is the township supervisor).
“We’re trying to make an ordinance that everybody’s happy with,” said Becker, noting how difficult this seems to be.
“We spent a year trying to get this ordinance done right. But some people didn’t like it so now we’re starting over,” Frandsen added.
The township’s now-repealed turbine ordinance allowed for turbines up to 600 feet tall in the township, prompting a woman in the audience to ask the Planning Commission, “Would you want something that’s 600 feet in your backyard?”
“Yes,” Becker freely admitted.
No action was taken at Thursday’s meeting regarding creating a new wind ordinance.
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