DOUGLASS TOWNSHIP – The Douglass Township Planning Commission began the lengthy process of creating a new wind ordinance Wednesday evening in yet another meeting featuring colorful commentary from township officials and dissension from audience members – as well as a failed attempt to limit public comment.
About three dozen audience members were present, most wearing face masks, but there wasn’t much social distancing going on as all the chairs were set up side by side in the township hall (the township board voted last week to stop offering to offer a Zoom option despite repeated requests from audience members who even offered to pay for Zoom).
Planning Commission Chairman Jack Jeppesen, Vice Chairman Rick Baldwin, Secretary Cindy Shick and commissioners Pat Althoff, Kevin Rush and Tim Snyder were all present, while commissioner Todd Wells participated via speakerphone as he is recovering from COVID-19.
Township Supervisor Terry Peterman was also present and sat between two Montcalm County sheriff’s deputies whom he asked to attend after last week’s rowdy township board meeting.
Jeppesen began the meeting by saying that the township’s attorney recommended that the Planning Commission set a time limit for public comment of 10 minutes total, with each person speaking no longer than 30 seconds, so the Planning Commission could proceed with working on a new ordinance. Althoff made a motion to do this, but Baldwin disagreed and also questioned why the township wasn’t offering a Zoom option, especially in light of surging COVID-19 cases. Baldwin also noted that the township may be receiving more than $200,000 in federal stimulus money at some point.
“Some of that could easily be spent on Zoom … but they (the township board) turned it down the other night,” Baldwin said. “Why, I don’t know. What is the purpose in not letting people hear this?”
“Every meeting I’ve been to so far has been a ‘bitch’ session,” responded Althoff who is the newest member of the Planning Commission. “The three meetings I’ve been at have been 90% public comment.”
Althoff’s comment promoted gasps and groans of complaint from audience members.
“It seems like that little Zoom fee to keep everybody informed is pretty trivial,” Baldwin noted.
“It all adds up, Rick,” Snyder interjected. “Just this month alone we spent $5,000 on attorney fees. Where does it stop?”
“I’ll pay for it!” multiple audience members declared, referring to Zoom fees.
Baldwin said he urged Anderson to either offer Zoom or hold township meetings at a larger location (the neighboring Pine Township Board has also ceased offering Zoom options, but held its last two meetings at the spacious Flat River Conservation Clubhouse in Montcalm Township).
“They (the township board) turned it down the other night after people offered to pay for it,” Baldwin repeated in disbelief.
“That’s neither here nor there, Jeppesen responded. “That one’s up to the township board.”
“Well, the township board should take another look at that if they want the money,” Baldwin said. “If not, I can look up the rest of the township’s money they’re getting, we can start locally – what, (State Rep.) Pat Outman? Is that where we start? We talk to him and say these guys aren’t earning their money or they would be offering the public to see something, to hear something. There’s people who didn’t come here tonight because they didn’t want to risk their own life and we didn’t even offer them that option.”
“I would agree with Rick that we’re at risk of violating the Open Meetings Act,” Shick added.
“This comes right from Ron Redick, the township attorney,” Jeppsen noted of the recommended limit on public comment.
The Planning Commission then voted 3-4 on Althoff’s motion, meaning it failed. Althoff, Jeppesen and Snyder voted “yes” while Baldwin, Rush, Shick and Wells voted “no.”
Jeppesen then said he would be limiting public comment to three minutes per person, as usual.
“This meeting was meant for the committee to work on a draft ordinance tonight and we’d like to be out of here at 9 o’clock, so if you people take up all of our time with public comment, then so be it, we’ll start on it at our next meeting,” Jeppesen told the audience.
Jeppesen then opened the floor to public comment.
“I’m sure Albert has something to say,” sarcastically scoffed a man in the audience, referring to Apex Clean Energy Senior Development Manager Albert Jongewaard, who was present.
“We’re not going to go there,” Jeppesen warned.
“Why, can’t he speak?” the man asked.
“Albert can speak if he wants, but we’re not going to get in a pissing match tonight, understand?” Jeppesen ordered.
“Yep,” the man responded.
Jongewaard did not speak during the meeting.
As public comment got underway, one audience member voiced disgust with the language being used by township officials.
“I do not like to be donating my time to listen to this stuff and hear ‘pissing contest’ and ‘bitching’ and I’ve been on the record – I do not like that kind of language, very unprofessional and I’m not impressed,” Sarah Kelley said.
Kellie Jeppesen, the wife of Jack Jeppesen, then stood to speak in support of the Planning Commission, which she said certain people were making comments against before the meeting even started.
“If you wonder why these guys are on the defensive, that is why,” Kellie declared. “They are trying to get business started so everybody can contribute, but then we get comments made underneath our breath, out loud, behind our backs. And yes, language was used that probably shouldn’t have been, but you’ve gotta understand, not only are you guys under pressure to get things passed your way, these gentlemen are also under pressure to pass things and listen to you and listen to everybody in the township.”
Kellie then made a passionate speech in support of local farmers, such as herself and her husband.
“People are on top of the farmers all the time in saying how they’re greedy. You don’t understand,” she declared. “Farmers do not have the retirement that you factory workers have, that you teachers, that you nurses have. What they have is their land.
“Don’t shake your head at me, please,” Kellie told a woman in the audience who was not impressed with Kellie’s comments. “That’s disrespectful. You guys want respect, you respect the ones that are talking.
“We do want to preserve the land, but we also need to make a living,” Kellie continued. “We don’t have kids coming back to take over the farm. We are it. Farming is the one industry right now that pays for their product at retail and sells our product at wholesale. We do pay the freight both ways. That is the way it will always be in this country. I apologize if you guys get upset with me. I am a farmer, I will always be a farmer and nobody will ever want to tread on me about that. I am one person but I have a very loud voice when it comes to that kind of an industry. I apologize if I have upset anybody, but you guys need to understand, this is our retirement. We don’t have a retirement, so yes, we want to make a little bit of extra money.”
In response to Kellie’s comments, a man in the audience asked if anyone on the Planning Commission plans to sign a lease for wind turbines.
“If you are, you need to be removed,” he declared to audience applause.
Jeppesen told the man, who identified himself as Scott Carr, that this was public comment – not question and answer time.
Julie Weipert of Stanton also spoke on behalf of the Douglass Township Energy Coalition, reading a prepared statement in which she asked the Planning Commission to implement the following into its new wind ordinance: no more than 45 decibels of sound, a turbine setback of four times the height of the turbine from the closest non-participating property line, zero shadow flicker on non-participating property, a reasonable height limit, decommissioning language, cost of turbine removal to be determined by a township-chosen engineer, a complaint resolution process, remedies and penalties for violations, access to an unreacted safety manual regarding turbines and any expenses incurred for legal fees for consultants and engineers to be paid for by the developer.
Audience members applauded Weipert’s requests.
WIND ORDINANCE PROCESS BEGINS
After about half an hour of public comment, the Planning Commission then spent the next hour and 15 minutes beginning to work on a new wind ordinance to replace the one rescinded by the township board last week. The Planning Commission did not get into the areas of turbine height, setback, shadow flicker or sound limit during Wednesday’s meeting.
Jeppesen noted many of the items they are reviewing will need input from the township attorney or from planner Tim Johnson.
“We’re not gonna get this done tonight,” Jeppesen summarized (the Planning Commission meeting started at 7 p.m. and adjourned at 8:45 p.m.).
The Planning Commission will meet again at 7 p.m. on April 28 to continue working on a new wind ordinance.