WINFIELD TOWNSHIP – The conversational current was more than just a zephyr during a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting Tuesday night.
As 25 people met inside Winfield Township Hall, at least that many more stood outside in the parking lot to listen to the meeting over a loudspeaker on a cold night in April as traffic roared by on M-46.
Speakers inside used a microphone so those outside could hear. During public comment, people were allowed to come inside one at a time to speak. Township officials cited the 25-person limit indoors as in response to state of Michigan gathering restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic; however, this may have been a violation of the Open Meetings Act as there is currently no 25-person limit at gatherings of public bodies in Montcalm County.
Near the end of the nearly two and half hour meeting, ZBA members Steve Cole, Dan Kanouse and Dale Ulrich voted 3-0 to approve two temporary land use permits applied for by Apex Clean Energy to place a temporary meteorological tower (MET tower) and a sonic detection and ranging (SODAR) unit at 17810 Lake Montcalm Road on property owned by William Roush Jr. (near Reynolds Township) and a MET tower at 9400 Amble Road on property owned by Kenneth Rader.
“I’m hesitant, but yes,” said Cole when casting his vote.
OPEN MEETINGS ACT QUESTION
In light of multiple people not being allowed inside the township hall, questions have been raised by meeting attendees about whether this violated the Open Meetings Act (OMA). Other recent township board meetings in Montcalm County have allowed more than 25 people inside for wind ordinance-related meetings (including Douglass and Pine townships).
According to current Michigan capacity limitations at indoor gatherings, the 25-person limit does not apply to gatherings of public bodies and attendees of meetings held by public bodies in compliance with OMA.
MCL 15.263(2) allows a public body to meet electronically to accommodate a local state of emergency. An electronic meeting requires two-way communication so that members of the public can hear the public officials, and vice versa during a public comment period.
Montcalm County remains under a local declaration of emergency by the county Board of Commissioners (the county board is expected to vote to extend this order next week). However, the county’s declaration does not limit attendance at local government meetings. The county’s declaration triggers the ability for local government bodies to hold an electronic meeting, but the Winfield Township ZBA chose to meet in person.
Since the county’s declaration does not limit meeting attendance, the OMA exemption in Section 2(c)(15) of the state’s epidemic order then applies. That exemption states: “a person must not be excluded from a meeting otherwise open to the public except for breach of the peace actually committed at the meeting” per MCL 15.263(6).
Based on state and county orders, it appears the Winfield Township ZBA may have violated OMA.
Julia Potratz, who is a member of the Winfield Township Planning Commission and who works as a nurse, was one of several audience members who asked the ZBA why no Zoom option was provided for Tuesday’s meeting.
“The (COVID-19) numbers right now are going up. We’re in what they call the third wave,” she said. “I’ve seen this at work. I’ve seen patients I’ve taken care of that are extremely ill. I’ve seen patients go on a ventilator and never come off. Personally, I feel that frankly it’s extremely irresponsible of us as a township not to offer a remote option at this point. And why not? It’s not expensive. There’s options that are affordable.
“There’s people standing outside in the cold because they can’t come in,” she said. “The rest of us, we’re not six feet apart. We all have a right to be here. The responsible thing to do as a township, the safest thing to do would be to offer a remote option. I think we can all do better.”
Winfield Township Zoning Administrator Dave Kelsey had previously denied the MET towers when Apex submitted its application last autumn as the township does not currently have a wind ordinance, which is why the decision was placed in the ZBA’s hands.
According to Apex Senior Development Manager Albert Jongewaard, the MET towers will be “just shy” of 200 feet tall and will measure wind speed. He emphasized that MET tower locations are not indicative of future turbine locations.
“It’s gathering data to plan future land uses,” added Tom Forshee, an attorney from Dickinson Wright for Apex. “This is going to be data that can be used by a developer and the township will have data. It will provide us with valuable information about whether uses in the future could be viable or not.”
Apex has proposed a 75-turbine “Montcalm Wind” project, currently focused on about 10 townships in Montcalm County. Apex officials say the project will bring an investment of more than $600 million into the county. As of December 2020, Apex had signed more than 100 leases with individuals or families involving 15,000 to 20,000 acres of land in the county (Apex officials hope to lease up to 50,000 acres of land, although they say turbines and access roads would cover less than 1% of the land lease for the project).
Brenda Gartzke of Winfield Township asked Ulrich, who is chairman of the ZBA, if he planned to recuse himself from Tuesday’s meeting since Ulrich has signed a land lease with Apex, but Ulrich said no.
“I do not have any lease on the properties in question (on Amble Road and Lake Montcalm Road). I do not have any ties to them,” Ulrich said. “If that comes up where it has something to do with some of my property that I have any interest in, yeah, I will bow out.”
‘PEOPLE AREN’T GONNA REST UNTIL WE OVERTURN ANYTHING YOU DO’
Julie Houghton of Winfield Township called allowing MET towers into the township “part and parcel” of Apex’s wind farm plan.
“The public has shown this township board that we do not want wind turbines in this neighborhood,” Houghton said. “It is not conducive to the atmosphere. This is a farming community. This is a small town. They’re going to drive down our property values. And once these are in place, we’re stuck with them until we’re dead.”
Houghton pointed to Jongewaard who was sitting nearby.
“You guys don’t have to grant this,” Houghton said. “He’s nothing to nobody around here. He wants a variance. Why? Why are we giving him a variance? If you’re giving him a variance it’s because you’re inviting this stuff in the door because you’re planning on making way for this to happen here and nobody wants it. I am voicing an opinion for probably 95 percent of those people standing out in that parking lot that you won’t let in the door.”
People outside cheered and applauded this statement.
“Hey, don’t say I didn’t let them in the door,” Ulrich protested, referring to state orders.
“Then all of you guys go outside and stand,” Houghton responded. “Have it in the parking lot. We could all stand there.”
Cole, who is also a trustee on the Winfield Township Board, told audience members he’s been going door-to-door asking people for their thoughts on turbines.
“I have not hit Indian Lake because I already know where Indian Lake stands,” Cole said (referring to how some lake residents in Montcalm County have said they don’t want turbines near lakes).
“It’s been 50-50,” Cole said of his personal polling results. “I’m serious.”
Mitchell Potratz of Winfield Township called Cole’s comments “BS, pardon my language.”
“I’m against this,” Potratz said. “I don’t think we should be letting these MET towers in. It’s putting the chicken before the egg. Why are we measuring wind when we haven’t even made a decision on our ordinance about whether we want wind turbines around? You keep saying over and over that these are unrelated things, and if you believe that, I think you’re just lying to yourself.
“I’m just mad and I want to make sure that you know that I’m mad and if stuff goes through, people aren’t gonna rest until we overturn anything you do and stop anything from happening,” Potratz declared.
Potratz then turned to face Jongewaard in the audience.
“When good people ask you to leave and you don’t leave, then you’re not a good person,” Potratz said.
Ken Ek of Winfield Township turned to face Jongewaard to ask him if MET towers are a precursor for turbines. Ulrich asked Ek to address the ZBA, so Ek then asked the ZBA to ask Jongewaard to answer the question.
“If it is (a precursor), which I know it is, then it is a conflict of interest and nobody on this board should have anything to do with it, especially if they’re landowners,” Ek said.
Jongewaard noted there’s about “about 18 other precursors” to turbines as well, but he answered that MET towers are, “necessary to measure wind speed in order to figure out if it makes sense to build a wind farm.”
“There’s a lot of misinformation tonight,” added Jongewaard later during the meeting. “It seems pretty clear that there’s some confusion about what we’re discussing tonight – measuring wind speeds.”
Ulrich observed that multiple Indian Lake residents were voicing concern about turbines during the meeting, noting, “Indian Lake is not even in the proposed (Apex) development.”
Audience members had multiple responses in unison to this comment, mostly along the lines of not wanting to see the turbines from the lake, even from a distance or when driving through Montcalm County.
Lisa Ketelaar of Winfield Township voiced her dismay with local, state and federal government when addressing the topic of turbines.
“Our government is not trustworthy these days,” Ketelaar said. “I think it’s at every single level, absolutely every level. Transparency and just having the people feel like you people who are supposed to represent us, public servants is what you’re supposed to be, but that’s not what happens in America anymore. It’s not the leaders representing the people, it’s corruption at every single level. I just don’t understand how anybody can make a decision when you’ve got everybody here that’s against this thing. It just doesn’t make sense. You represent us, that’s what’s supposed to happen in America. It’s not what happens, it’s not what happens at every single level, including the election – and I believe it was fraudulent, I believe it with my whole heart – and I think that the public servants should represent the people and give the people confidence that that is what they’re here for because that’s not what people are seeing at any level. We need less government and we need less people telling us what to do. We should decide, the people should decide.”
Mary Kay Darnell of Winfield Township said she read in the Daily News that Apex has proposed 75 turbines for Montcalm County by 2024 and she doesn’t believe many people are well-informed about the proposal (the Daily News has been writing about Apex’s proposal since August 2020 and has been writing about wind companies expressing interest in Montcalm County since early 2019).
“I feel it’s like you’re opening the door to letting the wind turbines in and you’re doing in behind the general public’s back because most people don’t know what a MET tower is and they don’t know that you want to put in the large turbines,” Darnell said. “It’s kind of like there’s more going on here than I know.”
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