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Supervisor: Township zoning might be necessary in wind farm talks

STANTON TOWNSHIP – Township-wide zoning might be necessary to give the township more say over the direction of a wind farm project proposed in Adams and Stanton townships, Stanton Township Supervisor John Mattila said at Wednesday’s township board meeting.

Stanton Township has been exploring a police power ordinance similar to that in place in Adams Township. The Circle Power project would include 12 575-foot turbines, four in Adams Township and eight in Stanton Township.

It would meet Adams Township’s ordinance requirements, township officials said at a meeting last month.

Residents who gave opinions at recent meetings in both townships had been opposed to the project, which Mattila relayed to the township attorney helping craft an ordinance. Many of the sample ordinances Mattila looked at for a template, including one by Michigan State University, are written with the assumption a township zoning plan is already in place. For instance, the MSU template is written with the assumption that the township already has a site plan review process.)

“A lot of people I talked to don’t want to deal with zoning, but then with police power, you’re restricted in what you can regulate,” Mattila said.

If township-wide zoning were in place, it would mean regulating a host of activities beyond wind turbines, such as agricultural use or short-term rentals, Mattila said. As the turbines are legal both under state and federal law, the township also could not write an ordinance to ban them entirely, Mattila said.

Several residents spoke in favor of township-wide zoning, many of whom were from the Guardians of the Keweenaw Ridge, a newly formed citizens’ group opposed to the project.

“A police ordinance will not work,” said Charles Markham, president of the group. “It will not stop. It will do nothing, because they have attorneys, and they will win.”

Stanton Township resident Karen Hext drew a parallel between the wind turbines and the mining companies.

“We’ve been living with the stamp sands for our entire lives as a byproduct of copper mining, so we don’t know what we don’t know about the windmills,” she said. “And I’m concerned about when I’m gone, what the future generations are going to have to look at, or deal with.”

James Mihelcic, the secretary of the group, said the group had hired an attorney specializing in zoning in wind-turbine areas who would be willing to meet with the township and its attorney to look over an ordinance.

The group had its first organizational meeting two weeks ago, which also included members of Friends of the Land of the Keweenaw (FOLK) and the Friends of the Hurons, Markham said. The group’s Facebook group has also attracted several hundred members.

“Our goal is to stop it,” Markham said.

The Guardians of the Keweenaw Ridge will have an informational session about the group and the wind turbine project with the Houghton County Republican Party at 7 p.m. Friday at the Mine Shaft in Houghton.

Markham said he doesn’t want a large-scale commercial project, but would support an ordinance that would have lesser restrictions on smaller residential or farm turbines.

“It’s not right for our area … you’re going to lose property value, you’re going to lose tourism, you’re going to lose all kinds of stuff,” he said, pointing to a size comparison showing the height differential between a tree, the Quincy Mine Hoist and one of the proposed turbines. He said the group plans to provide a computer rendering like one created during the successful attempt to block a wind-turbine project in Baraga County, showing what the turbines would look from different points in the viewshed.

During the meeting, Mihelcic mentioned a recent Michigan Tax Tribunal ruling that DTE Energy had been overcharged in taxes for a wind farm downstate, a ruling that could reduce tax revenues from projects statewide.

Circle Power partner Chris Moore said in the event of a change, he would be willing to work the townships on a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) agreement, which are used to offset losses from property taxes.

Moore said he welcomes the development of the group, which could streamline the process of working with the public.

“If all they want to do is make us go away, or to be no project, that’ll be hard for us to support,” he said after the meeting. “But if they’re willing to work with us, we’re willing to work with them. And I think there are some things we can do.”

He said he would be willing to negotiate on smaller turbines. He said he would listen to residents who requested a larger setback than the 3,000 feet from the nearest property line required under the Adams Township ordinance. (MSU Extension mentions standards by turbine manufacturer General Electric for a setback of 1.1 times the tip height in case of tower failure, and 1.5 times the hub height plus rotor diameter to guard against ice throw.)

Moore said for the most part the setback is used as a way to guard against other things people are concerned about, such as sound or shadow flicker.

“If your goal is to improve public health and human safety, let’s put a standard in place that’s actually measuring and then doing something about what you’re actually worried about,” he said.

In comments at the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Mattila said during a recent trip downstate, he had visited a wind farm. By the time he was 1,200 feet away, he could not hear the turbines, he said.

“My hearing isn’t as great as some of the younger ones, but personally, I didn’t think they were that loud,” said Mattila, who said he is undecided on the turbines.

Mattila also addressed comments on a flyer circulated by Guardians of the Keweenaw Ridge at the South Range Fourth of July parade. Regarding the statement that residents would lose access to hunting and trail riding, Mattila said the commercial forest land is open to hunting and fishing for foot traffic only; ORV access is not a legal requirement, he said.

On bird and bat mortality, Mattila said, given the number of turbines nationally, average bird mortality rates would result in two to 10 dead birds annually per turbine.

Mattila, who announced his resignation for health reasons at the end of the meeting, said he wished people would also speak up about other issues, as he plans to after stepping down from the board. He cited local statistics on drug and alcohol use, including a study showing 88 alcohol-related deaths locally between 2006 and 2010, as well as the national rate of about 600,000 abortions per year.

“I’m not pro or against the windmills, but when these numbers are being thrown out there, these are real numbers with human lives,” he said.