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Winfield Township planners hear feedback on future wind energy ordinance

WINFIELD TOWNSHIP – While a solar energy ordinance was the only topic on Monday’s agenda for the Winfield Township Planning Commission, a wind energy ordinance was the main topic of discussion during public comment.

Winfield Township does not yet have a wind ordinance but is working on one in response to a proposal from Apex Clean Energy to place 75 wind turbines throughout Montcalm County.

The Planning Commission discussed and voted 5-2 on Monday to recommend a solar ordinance to the township board (see accompanying story), but most audience members only wanted to talk about wind. Many of the more than 50 people participating via Zoom as well as the 13 audience members present in person had questions for the Planning Commission and were frustrated when those questions weren’t answered during public comment.

Julie Houghton of Winfield Township was present in person and had previously asked to be placed on the meeting agenda, but Planning Commission Chairman Chris Rader declined her request.

“I don’t really understand that,” Houghton said. “Why would I be denied to be put on the agenda?”

“It’s on the advice of our township attorney,” Rader responded. “We can’t just let anybody be on the agenda. You have the opportunity to speak during public comment.”

“I have a question,” Houghton then began, but she was turned down again.

“This isn’t question and answer time. It’s public comment,” Planning Commissioner Travis Carr said.

“I do not understand why there is never a question and answer,” said a woman on Zoom who only identified herself as Renee without giving her township of residence. “Everybody would like to know when are you going to have a question and answer period? I don’t understand. I will never understand how every single township, nobody ever seems to want to answer any single question but if Albert (Jongewaard) was there from Apex nobody has any problems having two-way conversations with him but you can’t seem to do it with the people. This is something that affects our entire county for the rest of our lives. You need to start doing your job or get the hell off of the board because you don’t need to be there if …” (the rest of Renee’s statement was drowned out by applause from in-person audience members).

“I’m not opposed to questions and answers, but that wasn’t what this meeting was for,” Carr said. “Public comment is public comment. It’s unfortunate that just because we don’t see eye to eye and we don’t agree that it has to be uncivil.”

Tricia Korhorn of Winfield Township wrote a lengthy letter about wind and solar, which Rader read during public comment. Korhorn asked township officials to place a moratorium on any wind or solar action until permits were finalized and she also asked township officials to abstain from voting if they stand to gain anything from their involvement with wind or solar projects.

“The landscape of Winfield Township is of the utmost importance to its residents,” Korhorn wrote. “It was very eye-opening and concerning to residents at the recent Zoning Board of Appeals (April 20) hearing that township officials are operating on wind and solar issues against the wishes of the majority of residents in Winfield Township. Our township is too small for one turbine or one solar field to not affect us. To discount the majority of Winfield residents is a huge disservice to us. There will not be any turning back once we allow solar and wind into our community.

“We expect you to act professionally and with concern for the township you were appointed to serve, not for your own personal gain,” Korhorn wrote. “To continue to deny the conflicts that many of you have in drafting these ordinances is wrong.”

Jeremy Kwekel of Cato Township who was present in person said a question and answer session would be helpful to improve trust between township officials and residents.

Kwekel also mentioned a November 2019 letter bearing Apex’s logo and the signatures of Rader and other township officials in Montcalm County (including Montcalm Township Planning Commission Chairman Dick Karnatz, Roger Betten Sr. and Roger Betten Jr., Brandon Carlson, Scott Karnatz, Gary Nielsen, Paul Olson and Ken Rader).

“We are exclusively negotiating good faith with Apex for long-term wind easements with Apex Clean Energy and hope to conclude those negotiations and executive easements by the end of this year (2019),” the letter stated. “Based on our knowledge of the community and conservations we’ve had with our neighbors, we believe there will be a high degree of participation in this area once the final terms with Apex are set.”

Kwekel said in response to this letter’s claim about “conversations we’ve had with our neighbors” and “a high degree of participation,” he obtained a list of Chris Rader’s next-door neighbors and spent an hour and a half going door to door to poll them about turbines.

“Tina Drayton does not want wind turbines,” Kwekel announced. “Alan Drayton does not want wind turbines. Terry Griffes does not want wind turbines. Christopher Smalley does not want wind turbines. Lisa Smalley does not want wind turbines. Dan Gitre does not want wind turbines. And I found two people who are undecided. I don’t know what neighbors you’ve been talking to who actually support this but I don’t see them.”

Kwekel then turned to Winfield Township Supervisor Phyllis Larson who was seated nearby (Larson has signed a property lease with Apex).

“Phyllis, I’ve talked to your neighbors, I didn’t record them, but most of them don’t want it,” Kwekel said. “(Winfield Township Trustee) Steve (Cole), who’s been saying that 50 percent of people he’s talked to, I’ve talked to his neighbors, it’s the same thing – 90 percent do not want this. It reflects on you guys’ character and your decisions.

“I’ve got to give (Planning Commissioner) Dale (Ulrich who has also signed a property lease with Apex) respect because he’s said I don’t care what the neighbors say – at least he’s got the balls to say that,” Kwekel added, to some laughter from audience members.

“Obviously wind is a big topic and we’re going to have to get into that at some point here,” said Rader later during Monday’s meeting. “I think setbacks are a big issue. Decommissioning. There’s a lot of questions.”

“I know Apex told us what they wanted to do here a year ago or so. Do we start there?” Commissioner John Black asked.

Commissioner Ken Kool said he felt the township had already heard plenty of information from Apex and should speak with other sources instead. Commissioners discussed this issue and suggested inviting representatives from Consumers Energy and Spicer Engineering to speak and answer questions at a future meeting.

The Winfield Township Board is next scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. May 13.

The Planning Commission is next scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. June 28 to continue discussing the pending solar ordinance and to start discussing creating a wind ordinance.