EUREKA TOWNSHIP – As the topic of wind energy and potential construction of turbines has dominated local township meetings for the better part of seven months, one township has remained quiet on the issue – until now.
During Wednesday evening’s meeting of the Eureka Township Planning Commission, a public hearing was held on a draft of amendments to “Ordinance 79,” which is the township’s zoning ordinance. The 251-page document contains all of the township’s zoning laws, from establishing various zoning districts while regulating the use, location, size, shape and subdivision of land, open spaces, buildings and structures.
According to Commission Vice Chairman Marty Posekany, who chaired Wednesday’s meeting due to the absence of Chairman Duane Putnam due to personal reasons, the commission has spent the past eight months reviewing various modifications and updates to the ordinance from planner Andy Moore of Williams & Works, in order ensure everything is up to proper code.
Upon the conclusion of the meeting, the commission voted unanimously not to recommend the ordinance for approval to the Eureka Township Board, but to instead send the draft to the township’s attorney (Bloom Sluggett PC of Grand Rapids) for further review before making any decisions.
That decision came after a public hearing was conducted, in which most people in attendance, about 25 in total, spoke out on one subject within the ordinance – wind energy.
Seven individuals, four from Eureka Township and three from outside the township, brought forth concerns specific to the possibility that wind turbines could be constructed in Eureka Township if the township’s wind energy systems (WES) ordinance is not made more restrictive compared to how it stands now or how it is currently proposed to be amended.
Other townships in Montcalm County have been working to draft or amend wind ordinances in response to a proposal from Apex Clean Energy to place 75, 600-foot wind turbines throughout Montcalm County.
Township Supervisor and Zoning Administrator Darcia Kelley told the Daily News that Apex is not looking at Eureka Township at this time.
“I reached out to them,” Kelley said. “I spoke with Mel Christensen (public engagement organizer for Apex), who I have a past relationship with working at Montcalm Community College. I know her, I’ve been in many many meetings with her. She’s someone I can trust, and I asked her, are you looking at us? She said ‘no.’ We are not in Apex’s sweet spot for turbines in this county. We’re not really the target they want.”
Regardless of whether there is interest for turbines in Eureka Township or not, those who spoke during the public hearing emphasized to the Planning Commission that they want assurance that if a company such as Apex did pursue the township, that an ordinance would be in place to protect them.
“We moved here from Grandville because Eureka Township is so beautiful – beautiful open fields, beautiful open lands, beautiful sunsets and beautiful sunrises, every single day here,” Eureka Township resident Brian Murray said. “Turbines will take that away.”
Living adjacent to a large, farmed field on the eastern edge of the township on Berridge Road, Murray said he wouldn’t be surprised if that property was eventually looked at as a potential location for a wind turbine.
“There’s only a few people that own all the land where the turbines can go, and while a few people will benefit, everyone else will lose out,” he said, adding that home values would go down. “Nobody is going to buy houses next to these wind farms.”
Residents of neighboring townships, including Montcalm and Sidney, also spoke out.
“I go to a lot of these meetings and the majority of the people that are speaking out are totally against turbines,” Joe Hansen of Sidney Township said. “They are worried about the health and safety of people. (Turbines) don’t fit in this kind of town or county.”
In adding a perspective from a township that implemented a restrictive wind energy ordinance and moratorium against wind energy, saw those efforts challenged in court by NextEra Energy Resources LLC, but successfully had the case thrown out of court in 2018, Almer Township Supervisor Jim Mantey, who also owns a home on Harlow Lake in Eureka Township, said the Eureka Township Planning Commission should follow in Almer Township’s footsteps.
“Our previous board was in the process of thinking they were going to do a great thing, molding their ordinance to the wishes of the NextEra wind development company. That’s not what it’s about,” he said. “A township doesn’t mold its ordinances to a special use permit. You have one primary job – the health, safety and welfare of the people, period.”
Mantey said the township’s ordinance wasn’t prohibitive, but was restrictive, with limits including 500 feet in height for turbines with setbacks set at four times the height of the turbine from the nearest non-participating landowner or road right-of-way.
“We made our ordinance, not that it was prohibitive … they (NextEra) could have still come in, but with not as many turbines,” he said.
After receiving comments from the public, Posekany said it was clear the ordinance needed some additional review.
“With the information I’ve received from people, I also have questions. We do need to strengthen it,” he said.
Posekany emphasized that the Planning Commission will not draft a prohibitive ordinance.
“We cannot say ‘no, you can’t come” – that’s exclusionary zoning and you will get dragged into court for that – but we just need to set a standard as such that it is safe for the township residents,” he said. “We will never intentionally write an ordinance with the intent of prohibiting something, creating something that is outlandish, say, no turbines over 50 feet tall or setbacks two miles from a property line. We will not do it with that intent. We will only do it with the best of our ability to keep things safe for the people and the property. We will never intentionally try to do something to keep something out of the township like that because that’s illegal.”
Posekany said there are currently three factors that deter companies such as Apex from looking at Eureka Township as an option for wind turbines, the first being the city of Greenville with a population of around 8,500; the second being the Greenville Municipal Airport; and the third being about 5,000 acres of land in the southeast corner of the township belonging to the Flat River State Game Area.
“That’s why they told us they don’t want to come here,” Posekany said. “However, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to have an ordinance that isn’t strong enough to protect what we do have.”
Posekany said specific elements in the ordinance will have to be addressed, such as turbine height. As drafted, neither the original ordinance nor amended ordinance have a limit on height.
Members of the Planning Commission reached a consensus that the wind energy portion of Ordinance 79 should be reviewed and potentially amended.
“I believe we need to make some changes … we do have a lot of people we need to protect,” Commissioner Jon Behrends said.
When asked about pursuing a moratorium against wind energy systems, both Kelley and Posekany said they have no plans to do so at this time.
“I personally don’t know how these other townships are going about their moratoriums – some are legal, some are not,” Posekany said. “We would have to draft another ordinance, have another public hearing, and it’s going to take the same amount of time (as approving the draft of Ordinance 79).”
When asked directly by members of the audience why the township won’t pursue a moratorium, Kelley responded “because we don’t need one.”
Kelley elaborated further with the Daily News after the meeting.
“We have time on our side, other townships don’t – it’s not apples to apples,” she said. “What other townships are doing, it doesn’t really match what we need right now. Could wind energy companies come? Sure, but they aren’t looking at us right now. However, we will look at our ordinance and if it needs to be beefed up, we will do that.”
The Planning Commission will next meet on June 16.
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