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Passionate public hearing in the park

SIDNEY TOWNSHIP – This township’s proposed wind ordinance appears to meet the wishes of the vocal majority in central Montcalm County.

It also may be illegal.

The Sidney Township Planning Commission heard 90 minutes of feedback Saturday afternoon at a public hearing attended by nearly 100 people in Sidney Memorial Park. The subject of the hearing was a proposed wind and solar energy ordinance, but wind dominated the discussion. The proposed ordinance can be read at sidneymi.org.

Before Saturday’s meeting began, the Montcalm County Citizens United group handed out free hot dogs and cookies in the park, along with anti-turbine face masks. An “Apex Kool-Aid” jar of green water with grass floating in it was also featured on the food table.

Planning Commission Chairwoman Michelle Damaska began the meeting by acknowledging a letter to the township from Dickinson Wright, the law firm for Apex Clean Energy, a wind developer which would like to build an estimated 75 turbines 600 feet high throughout multiple townships in Montcalm County. Damaska said the law firm’s letter “basically states that our ordinance isn’t legal, doesn’t have what it needs for them, and the process of doing our ordinance, they’re accusing us of not doing it right.”

This statement was greeted with derisive laughter from some audience members. The topic of whether the proposed ordinance is too restrictive was repeatedly discussed throughout the public hearing.

Larry and Laura Engel of Douglass Township, who also own property in Sidney Township and have signed a property lease with Apex, both spoke in support of wind energy.

“It’s my understanding that the ordinance that has been proposed is on its face illegal because it’s prohibitive zoning and that is not allowable, so I’m sure that you’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and work on it a little more,” Laura said. “I’m sure we’ll come up with something that everybody can live with. It’s my feeling that wind and sun are entities that God has given us and I think that we should make all the use we can of them because the government has mandated further use of these entities rather than non-renewable resources.”

“I feel that people that are anti-wind are taking my rights away too as a landowner,” Larry added. “As a landowner, I should have the right to do on my farm what I want to.”

Jon Muilenburg of Stanton, formerly of California, gave a passionate speech about his friendship with the Engels and how the topic of turbines has divided community members.

“I love you guys. I mean, I love you guys to death,” Muilenburg said, turning to face Larry and Laura. “If you went to the dictionary and salt-of-the-earth was one single word … you would see that man’s picture (Larry) as a pictorial definition. He is a wonderful man. I want nothing but the best for you guys. Everything you want, you have earned, you deserve, I swear. If I could give it to you, I would give it to you in a freaking heartbeat.

“But I didn’t come here for more urban sprawl,” Muilenburg said. “I hate to be on the opposite of you guys with this, but I am.”

“You’re in good company,” Laura gently responded.

“I know, but I just feel so bad,” said Muilenburg, who was on the verge of tears. “It brings me to tears to even have to say I’m against you guys and some of my neighbors when everyone was just so terribly welcoming to me when I first came to this place.”

Other residents were blunter in sharing their feelings, such as Erik Benko of Sidney Township, the founder of Montcalm County Citizens United (a Facebook-based group that is now up to 3,000 members).

“When somebody says that the government’s mandating this, that just sends up a red flag in my mind,” said Benko in response to Laura Engel’s comment. “The government used to talk about how healthy smoking was and they used to spray all our food with DDT too. This is gonna be the next thing, in 30 years everybody is going to say wow, that was a terrible idea covering our countryside with wind turbines.”

As Benko was moving about and speaking, the microphone and sound system made a loud squealing feedback noise.

“That’s what it sounds like when Apex talks,” Benko declared to cheers and applause.

“There’s been some mention lately of accusing our board here of collusion,” Benko said, referring to a May 19 article in the Daily News. “That’s hilarious. You know what I call collusion? I call a giant corporation coming in here whose page one of their playbook is to sign up and corrupt our government officials. That’s collusion.”

Robert “Bob” Scott of Grand Rapids and Sidney Township handed out edited photos to Planning Commission members of what he says Derby Lake could look like with turbines around them.

“Currently you have a letter from an attorney saying this is illegal and Mr. (Albert) Jongewaard says this is illegal,” Scott said. “Baloney. I’m a lawyer who used to write those letters. It’s simply a lawyer advocating for his client. Stand firm, ignore what their lawyer says and listen to what your lawyer says.”

Jongewaard, the senior development manager for Apex, addressed some of the comments made.

“I’ve been making the newspaper just about a couple times a week,” Jongewaard noted. “If you guys haven’t already subscribed, I’d encourage you to do so. I think we’re driving a lot of eyeballs to the news and what’s going on here lately.

“Our intention was to come here and work with Sidney Township and a lot of other townships with the idea of developing a responsible wind project,” he said. “Nobody’s talking about putting turbines in your backyard or in anybody’s backyard. We’re talking about putting turbines possibly out in the middle of farm fields. There’s over 60,000 operating wind turbines across the country today and many, many more across the world. Wind energy, wind technology has improved significantly and it’s going to be part of the future.”

Jongewaard said when Apex first approached Sidney Township officials several years ago, the township didn’t have its own wind ordinance.

“We were asked, ‘Should we develop a wind ordinance?’ Yeah, probably, sounds like a good idea,” he recounted. “We’re not here to write it for you – that’s not my job. We can say look at Gratiot County, here’s some examples of other communities that have safely operated, highly functional wind projects in their community today, look at them for an example. The tax dollars are real. There’s been a ton of money that’s been pumped into that community.”

Jongewaard also referenced the Daily News article “that I think a lot of you have read” about Apex’s FOIA request, the majority of which was denied by the Sidney Township Board.

“We have questions, simply questions,” he said of Apex’s FOIA request to Sidney Township. “It’s not threats, it’s questions about how did this process come about? You can raise questions to the township board through a FOIA request. That’s the same right that all you guys have. The rule of the law is pretty clear about what you’re supposed to do as it relates to a Freedom of Information Act request, there’s a process. That’s all we’re asking for is some clarity on the process. You comply with the rule of law, that’s all that we ask.”

Jongewaard then turned his attention toward whether Sidney Township’s proposed wind ordinance is actually legal.

“In the state of Michigan, restrictive zoning is illegal, period,” he said. “You’re supposed to allow for all legal business uses to have a right to operate without your jurisdiction. That’s the law. The ordinance as proposed today takes away all rights to consider developing wind energy in Sidney Township. I know that’s people’s intention, that seems to be quite clear, that’s not a surprise to us. But that’s also not how the law is written and there’s questions about how that process unfolded the way it did.”

Ned Welder, a longtime Sidney Township farmer, spoke in support of turbines, noting that people are often at first suspicious of new technology and progress, such as when Cyrus McCormick helped invent a mechanical grain reaper in the 1800s.

“People call me from out of town. They say what’s going on up there? Why the big hubbub about wind energy when it’s all over the world?” Welder said. “I throw up my hands and say, I guess it’s just the fearmongers. Facts over fear. There’s so much misleading information out there.”

Welder quoted in part a passage from “Mein Kampf” by Adolf Hitler: “The great masses of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than they will a small one. If you tell people a lie often enough and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed. I administer you to look at the facts here and not just a lot of hype and fearmongering.”

Welder’s statement was greeted with applause from some and disdain from others.

“The ‘Mein Kampf’ quote is pathetic,” Andrew Murray of Sidney Township declared. “That is a true low, to quote Hitler, for crying out loud.

“It’s funny, Mr. Welder, I love your new house. It’s beautiful, it really is, really nice,” Murray added. “I noticed something though – in your backyard, your propane tank, just a six-foot little propane tank, you painted it green. How interesting, right? It really doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but you look out in your backyard and you’ve got a six-foot, unsightly propane tank so you decided, ‘I’m going to paint that six-foot propane tank green because I don’t want to see it because it’s unsightly. I want to walk out into my backyard and not see a six-foot unsightly propane tank.’

“Think about how we feel for a 650-foot turbine,” Murray declared to cheers and applause. “I can’t paint it. What a complete load of crap from that gentleman right there.”

Apex officials will host a virtual public meeting at 6 p.m. this evening (Tuesday) to discuss their wind turbine design goals, setbacks and shadow flicker (visit montcalmwind.com/publicmeeting for more information). The virtual meeting will be a kick-off to a series of in-person open house “listening sessions” Apex will host in townships throughout Montcalm County in the near future.

PROPOSED WIND ORDINANCE

Portions of Sidney Township’s proposed wind ordinance regarding commercial wind energy conversion systems (WCES):

• HEIGHT: The maximum height of a WECS with the blade fully extended must not exceed 300 feet.

• SETBACK: The minimum setback from any property line of a non-participating landowner or any road right-of-way is 3,000 feet or five times the tip height of each turbine in the commercial WECS. Additionally, each turbine must be located at least 2.5 miles from the nearest lake or body of water.

• NOISE: Noise levels produced by the WECS must not exceed 40 dB(A) Leq 1 second or 50 dB(C) Leq 1 second at any time on a non-participating property. The Township Board may, in its sole discretion, allow a higher noise level only if the owner of the non-participating property signs a waiver consenting to a specific higher noise level and the waiver is recorded with the Montcalm County Register of Deeds.

• SHADOW FLICKER: A commercial WECS must not produce any shadow flicker on non-participating properties unless the record owners of all non-participating properties have signed a release, which must be recorded with the Montcalm County Register of Deeds.