WINFIELD TOWNSHIP – A wind ordinance discussion was short-lived at the Winfield Township Planning Commission level Monday evening after one planner repeatedly clashed with audience members.
An estimated 80 people packed into the small township hall in Amble to listen and voice their opinions on wind and solar ordinances during a standing-room-only meeting. Attendees stood up high on window ledges inside the hot and humid building and lined up out the door and down the ramp where loud traffic from M-46 made it difficult to hear.
Also present were all nine members of the Planning Commission: Chairman Chris Rader and John Black, Travis Carr, Ken Fisk, Ben Gordon, Carolyn Kelsey, Ken Kool, Julia Potratz and Dale Ulrich.
Carolyn Kelsey of Belvidere Township is also a member of the Planning Commissions in Cato and Maple Valley townships and is a trustee on the Belvidere Township Board. Her husband David Kelsey is the zoning administrator for Belvidere, Cato, Douglass, Home, Maple Valley, Richland and Winfield townships.
Carolyn was present in person for her first Winfield Township Planning Commission meeting since sometime last year, after being absent for months due to medical issues, and her actions Monday were memorable, if not necessarily favorable. She repeatedly clashed with audience members during the two-and-a-half-hour meeting.
“It’s not our job to zone to the company who wants to come here,” said Potratz during a solar ordinance discussion early in the meeting. “It’s their job to come in and abide by our zoning.”
This comment led to applause and cheers from audience members, which resulted in Carolyn turning to face them and scold them.
“Do you want the meeting to stop? Then stop! We’re having the meeting, so be quiet,” she said.
Audience members frequently interjected their thoughts and opinions throughout the meeting. They were quick to applaud and cheer for statements they approved of and vocally disagreed with statements they didn’t like.
After an hour of discussing the township’s solar ordinance, a wind ordinance discussion began around 8 p.m.; however, it went downhill in fewer than 15 minutes.
Carolyn began the wind turbine discussion by saying she believed the township needs to follow the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act “and what it says we can and cannot do. It says that we have to be able to let a company come into our area. We cannot …”
Here she was interrupted by audience members shouting “Bull!”
“Do you wanna leave?” Carolyn said, turning to face the audience again. “I’m telling you what the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act says. It says that you cannot discriminate against people in order to keep something out of your township. That applies as far as your distances, your height if you’re getting to the point where you can’t even get it into the section. You have to watch out what you’re doing in order to not have it say that you can’t have this particular type of thing in your township.
“You have to be fair, you have to go on both sides as a township,” she said. “Lots of people don’t know that. They want their way and we just can’t give them that.”
“We live here!” someone declared from the audience.
“You don’t live here!” another audience member pointed out.
“Would you like to leave?” Carolyn asked again.
“You can leave!” audience members responded.
Rader pounded the table with his hand and called for order.
Black suggested planners go around the table and suggest a few points each that they would like to see addressed in a wind ordinance, but Carolyn said she didn’t believe planners needed to share their thoughts. She then referred to the audience again.
“They say ‘I don’t like the looks of them.’ Well, that doesn’t always mean that’s the best for the township,” she said. “Maybe the township needs this in order for extra income in the township.”
As audience members began to protest this comment, Carolyn continued by saying, “The people … that’s why they ask us to be here is to do the best for the township, not for these people that are saying …”
“We are the township!” some audience members pointed out.
“This is one vote that they don’t like it, but there’s lots of people that like it and want it,” Carolyn declared.
“Where are they?!” audience members asked.
Rader hit the table again and called for order.
“We are here for the public,” Fisk assured audience members who were continuing to protest while Carolyn continued to share her thoughts.
“These people that want this (turbines) on their property deserve the right to be able to do that,” Carolyn said. “That’s what we are considered to do as a board. We have to be fair to both sides, not just one side. A lot of people don’t understand this is Michigan law.”
Black again attempted to have all planners share their thoughts, which proceeded for a few calm minutes.
“It’s the people who have the four or five acres with the 80 acres around them that, to me, this ordinance really has to address how much impact this stuff is going to have on them,” Kool said.
The topic of turbine height came up. Fisk suggested setbacks be two times a turbine’s height, Kool suggested two and a half times and Potratz said she wanted four times or more.
“They won’t be able to do it,” said Carolyn of wind developers dealing with a four times height limit. “It’s not feasible, not according to the law. There’s a common-sense thing about this …”
Audience members again began to protest Carolyn’s comments and Rader again called for order.
“Be reasonable, not stupid!” one man yelled out.
“Watch out. You’re not doing very well yourself,” Carolyn told him.
“Yeah, you too!” the man responded.
Several audience members then attempted to voice some comments but they were told that now was not the time on the agenda for public comment – something planners had already repeatedly told audience members throughout the meeting.
“They’ve said it how many times?” said Carolyn regarding previous public comments. “They’ve said the same thing how many times? You’re gonna get just the same thing over and over and over. You’ve gotta make decisions for the township. They’re going to tell you what they want – it isn’t up to them.”
This comment resulted in an uproar from audience members.
“Carolyn!” Rader declared, trying to bring the meeting back to order.
“You work for me, lady!” a woman in the audience told Carolyn.
Rader hit the table so hard it shook as he declared, “Hey, that’s enough!”
“You’re out of line, lady!” a man in the audience told Carolyn.
“It’s not up to you,” Carolyn repeated.
“Carolyn!” Rader again declared.
“No, you’re out of line,” Carolyn told audience members. “I am …”
“Carolyn! Thank you! Enough!” Rader declared, bringing the back-and-forth to an end.
Audience members applauded Rader, who then decided to end the wind discussion for the night as it was going nowhere.
Later during the meeting, Potratz noted the township recently placed a moratorium on solar projects and she made a motion to recommend the township board place a six-month moratorium on wind projects as well “to protect the township until we get an ordinance in place.”
However, the motion failed 4-5 with Black, Fisk, Kool and Potratz voting “yes” and Carr, Gordon, Kelsey, Rader and Ulrich voting “no.”
DRAFT ORDINANCE ALREADY EXISTS
Several audience members questioned why Winfield Township was “starting from zero” in creating a wind ordinance, but the township already has a drafted wind ordinance that they have been discussing since at least 2020.
The draft is based on the wind ordinance in Gratiot County’s Pine River Township, although it has never been posted on Winfield Township’s website.
The draft lists turbine setback from occupied buildings at no less than the greater of either two times its hub height or 1,000 feet; turbines shall not be located within 1.5 times its hub height of the property line of a non-participating lot; turbines shall be set back from the nearest public road at a distance of no less than 400 feet or 1.5 times its hub height (whichever is greater); and the sound limit for turbines is listed at 55 decibels dB(A).
The draft doesn’t specify a height limit for turbines.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Rader told meeting attendees on Monday. “Are we a little bit behind the other townships? Probably, but I don’t see Apex breaking ground any time soon. We’re going to take our time, we’re in no hurry.”
When asked by audience members which Winfield Township officials have signed leases with Apex, Rader declined to respond.
“We don’t have to answer that,” he said. “That’s already all over the internet.”
At least two township officials have signed leases with Apex that the Daily News is aware of: Winfield Township Supervisor Phyllis Larson and Planning Commissioner Dale Ulrich.
CHANGES TO SOLAR ORDINANCE
Monday’s Planning Commission meeting began with a discussion about the township’s proposed solar ordinance. A public hearing on the matter is scheduled for 1 p.m. on July 17 at Crossroads Church at Federal Road (old 131) and M-46 just north of Howard City.
The Planning Commission voted 5-2 in April to recommend the proposed solar ordinance to the township board, with Kool and Potratz both voting against it. Potratz on Monday initiated conversation about tweaking the proposed ordinance to make it stronger on sound limits and parcel coverage percentages.
After some discussion about sound, Potratz made a motion to change noise emission levels for solar energy projects from 50 dB(A) as measured at the perimeter of the project to 45 dB(A) L10 at any hour of the day. The motion passed 7-2 with Carr and Ulrich voting “no.”
Potratz also voiced concern about the township not having a limit regarding how much of a parcel can be covered with solar panels as she is worried this will cause “large chunks or all of the farmland” to be lost to solar projects. Gordon and Ulrich disagreed, saying limiting solar panels to a percentage would lead to solar pales being scattered and thus wouldn’t help preserve farmland either.
“I get what you’re saying,” Potratz said of Ulrich’s concern. “He’s got 19 parcels, why would he want to spread them out over a bunch of different parcels if he can pick two? My concern is what if he decides he wants to cover all 700 acres, all 19 parcels with all solar panels?”
“So he (Ulrich) has an interest in what you’re talking about is what you’re saying out loud,” a woman in the audience observed.
“Well, yes. Many people on this board do,” Potratz responded.
Potratz said a percentage limit would still allow property owners to decide whether to spread out solar panels or not, but Carr and Ulrich disagreed with her.
“No, you’re saying it’s up to you. You get to pick the percentage,” Carr said.
“I didn’t say 40 (percent),” Potratz responded.
“You did say 40,” Carr emphasized.
“I did not come up with the number 40, I said between 10 and 50 (percent),” Potratz said. “This ordinance has zero limits. I don’t think that’s reasonable or will be protective of the entire township.”
Fisk suggested they contact the township’s attorney for guidance on lot percentage limits and Potratz made a motion to table the topic until they obtain an attorney’s advice.
“We aren’t ready yet,” she said regarding the proposed solar ordinance. “This was rushed through prematurely and we weren’t ready, clearly.”
However, the motion failed 4-5 with Fisk, Kelsey, Kool and Potratz voting “yes” and Black, Carr, Gordon, Rader and Ulrich voting “no.” This means the July 17 solar ordinance public hearing will take place as scheduled.
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