The Pierson Township Planning Commission voted 3-1 on Thursday to recommend the township board make several amendments to the township’s wind ordinance, including leaving wind turbine setbacks at four times the turbine height.
The vote came after an hour and a half of public comment, the township supervisor threatening to have a sheriff’s deputy remove two audience members, and the Planning Commission chairman declaring with frustration that he was trying to do the best he could for just $25 per meeting.
Pierson Township Zoning Administrator Orvin Moore had previously requested that the Planning Commission amend the wind ordinance regarding turbine setbacks in order to make the ordinance more uniform across the board from an enforcement standpoint.
After listening to 90 minutes of public comment – the majority of which came from people asking that the township leave the setback limit at four times the turbine height, or even more – Planning Commissioner Tyler Lecceadone made a motion to amend the ordinance to change turbine setback from occupied structures and property lines from four times to three times the turbine height.
Lecceadone’s motion promoted multiple shouts of “No!” from audience members.
“Referendum, people!” one woman declared. “Recall!” yelled another man.
As Planning Commissioners tried to clarify the details of the proposed amendments, they were repeatedly interrupted by audience members who interjected comments of disagreement.
“They’re speaking!” Pierson Township Clerk Sara Burkholder told audience members regarding the Planning Commission as she was trying to take meeting minutes. “I’m really trying hard to keep up with what they’re saying. It’s not your time to talk right now, it’s their time to have a discussion.”
However, audience members repeatedly continued to interject their opinions, escalating louder as discussion continued until people were shouting at township officials.
“Folks, I get $25 per meeting,” Planning Commission Chairman Jim Ward declared in frustration to the audience. “You really think this is a holiday for me? I’m trying to do the best I can. $25 – I don’t give a (expletive) about. I just felt that it was my turn to give back. I’ve lived in this community 40 years and I want to watch out for the people in the community. I try to look at all sides. People have ownership rights that want towers, people have ownership rights that own property, people don’t want to look over there and see a windmill, I understand all that.”
Lecceadone eventually amended his motion to remove the “occupied structure” language. However, the motion failed 2-2 with Bill Grice and Lecceadone voting “yes” and Donna Ericksen and Ward voting “no.” Audience members applauded and cheered as the motion was defeated.
Ward then made a motion to recommend the township board make setbacks at four times a turbine height across the board. The vote passed 3-1 with Lecceadone voting “no.” Applause, cheers and whistles from the audience greeted the vote result.
PAYING ATTENTION IN PIERSON
One common theme voiced by residents throughout Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting was that many of them had no idea until recently Apex Clean Energy had proposed a wind farm project proposed for Montcalm County, nor did they have any idea until recently that Pierson Township had been working on its wind ordinance for the past year (the township board approved the ordinance in February).
Pierson Township has regularly updated its website and Facebook page and made all township board and Planning Commission meetings available via Zoom during the pandemic. Also, the Daily News (Montcalm County’s newspaper of record) has been regularly writing articles on the topic of Apex and township wind ordinances since August 2020.
“I work for MLive Media Group and I’m very, very in tune with the news and what’s being published … and unless somehow or another in the last 12 months I was living under a rock, I didn’t see any of this,” said Laura Witlz of Pierson Township. “I work in the news industry and I didn’t see any of this.”
“Almost no one knew about it,” Norman Hawkins of Pierson Township said. “We sure didn’t know about it.”
“I didn’t hear about it until like six weeks ago, eight weeks ago,” Duane Weed of Pierson Township said. “I know you guys on the government side did what you were supposed to do, but we all didn’t know about it. We would’ve been here, I would’ve been here.”
“I knew nothing, none of us knew anything about this,” Sally Kamphuis of Pierson Township said.
After Michael Julien of Pierson Township also said the issue hasn’t been well-publicized, Pierson Township Supervisor Dan Buyze finally spoke up.
“The Planning Commission has been working on this ordinance since last year,” Buyze pointed out. “Every meeting has been publicized. Every hearing has been publicized. We can’t drag people (here). We have Facebook, we have our webpage, we have publications. And the postings on the (township hall) doors. We have done our level best to let people know what’s going on. I hear what you’re saying but we have done our due diligence. I don’t know what more we could do.”
“Everybody has heard this afterward – most of us – have heard about it afterward,” Steve Matzen of Pierson Township said later during the meeting.
“How do you communicate when you’re doing all you can?” Buyze asked “Doesn’t the public have some responsibility to look and try to get informed? I mean, they’ve been working on this for over a year – over a year – in public meetings. I mean, I have a hard time saying we didn’t do our due diligence.”
“Most people do not come to your meetings, let’s face it, everybody, it’s not important to us except for when it affects us,” Matzen admitted. “We heard it late and now we’re reacting.”
“We found out about it in April,” Barb Hawkins of Pierson Township said. “This happened during COVID. Who came to a town meeting during COVID?”
“It did not start during COVID,” Zoning Administrator Orvin Moore pointed out.
“This February decision happened during COVID, didn’t it?” Barb asked.
“After a year of meetings, yes,” Moore responded.
“No one knew anything about it,” Barb said. “The communication about setbacks was very inadequate. As much as due diligence is a word, it’s not a reality.”
ENFORCING THE RULES?
Other than Apex Clean Energy Senior Development Manager Albert Jongewaard, only two people spoke in favor of wind turbines at Thursday’s meeting.
Steven Paulsen of Maple Valley Township, who also owns property in Pierson Township, presented a letter to the Planning Commission in support of bringing wind energy to Montcalm County.
“We, the undersigned, call on you to adopt reasonable rules for wind energy that respect private property right, support our local farmers and landowners and allow for responsible wind development in our community,” the letter read in part.
The letter was signed by 16 people: Robert and Priscilla Heimbecker of 22 Mile Road, Trufant; Richard and Judith Rowland of 22 Mile Road, Sand Lake; Steve and Pauline Woronko of Stanton Road, Pierson; Stephen Johnson of Stanton Road, Pierson; James and Ann Larsen of Greenville Road, Lakeview; Timothy and Barbara Alles of Kendaville Road, Howard City; Edward and Nancy Johnson of Coral Road, Howard City; Gordon Howe of Coral Road, Howard City; as well as Steven himself and his wife Jeanne Poulsen of Kimball Road, Trufant.
Earl Hayden of Pierson Township also spoke in favor of wind energy, adding that residents who own “an acre or two of land” are “trying to control a person who’s got lots of land … they’re trying to control the farmer out there who’s got all kinds of acres … hundreds of acres.”
“We pay 10 times the taxes on our one acre of land,” Jeremy Kwekel of Cato Township responded to Hayden.
“We’re not going to have crosstalk or that sheriff will remove you from the property,” Buyze warned. “We’re going to have respect for everybody. Got it?”
Buyze was referring to Montcalm County Sheriff’s Deputy Austin Edwards who was present at Thursday’s meeting at the township’s request.
The deputy’s presence came up again later during the meeting when Joe Hansen of Sidney Township spoke (Douglass Township Planning Commission Chairman Jack Jeppesen previously threatened to have Hansen removed by a sheriff’s deputy at that township’s Planning Commission meeting in April).
“I can’t believe (Douglass Township Supervisor) Terry Anderson, the way he acts like he’s on board (with wind turbines),” Hansen declared during Thursday’s meeting in Pierson Township. “He has a nice petting zoo (Anderson & Girls in Stanton), you think he would be all against it. I’m not sure whether he is or not.”
Township officials asked Hansen to stick to the topic at hand regarding turbine setbacks in Pierson Township, but Hansen bristled at township officials for interrupting him.
“Sir, we are talking about setbacks,” Buyze said. “Get to the point. You have three minutes.”
“Oh, nobody else had three minutes,” Hansen responded.
“They followed the rules,” Buyze said (although a three-minute comment limit had not previously been mentioned at the meeting).
“Oh, now you’re gonna bring up the rules,” Hansen responded.
“I am,” Buyze said. “And I have someone here who will help me enforce them (meaning the sheriff’s deputy).”
This statement prompted some loud groans and some applause from the audience.
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