CATO TOWNSHIP – As the Cato Township Planning Commission continues to work on amending its wind energy ordinance, a Gratiot County farming couple attended a July 14 meeting to share their experience.
Dan and Nancy Welke live in Merrill, Lafayette Township, where they say they have one turbine less than 1,600 feet from their home and another one about 2,600 feet away. They say they have been “battling” with DTE Energy and Gratiot County officials for the last year and a half regarding the negative effects of the turbines.
Nancy called the ongoing experience “a living hell.”
“It sounds like two 747s hovering over our farm,” she said. “We don’t sleep most nights. We have completely redone our home. We have a 2,500-square-foot home, but we live in less than 1,600 feet. The other one is less than 2,600 feet. Our upstairs is totally useless. Most nights I sleep in a walk-in closest. I’ll be 66 years old tomorrow. We worked our asses off to build what we have. The wind turbine people came in and took it all away from us and they don’t give a damn. Nobody will do anything for us.”
“It’s like airplanes, it’s just constant, it annoys the hell out of you,” Dan added. “You can’t sleep at night, you can’t get away from them.”
The Welkes, who raise horses, say their animals have been experiencing health issues since the turbines were installed as well. Nancy said a veterinarian said the horses have metabolic disorders.
The Welkes say they have asked DTE Energy either for the turbines to be turned off or to be reasonably bought out, but they say DTE declined. The Welkes say they have been trying to sell their property since February and they have dropped the price by $70,000, but, “Nobody wants it because of the wind turbines. It’s ungodly,” Nancy said.
“We’re moving, we’re trying to sell our place,” Dan said. “Until we get our house sold, we can’t even build another houses. We’re making two mortgage payments. We should be retiring right now. It’s like airplanes, it’s just constant, it annoys the hell out of you. You can’t sleep at night, you can’t get away from them.”
Apex Clean Energy has proposed a wind farm project for Montcalm County and Apex’s Senior Development Manager Albert Jongewaard was in the audience July 14. He noted that another wind developer constructed the Gratiot County wind farm – not Apex – but he sympathized with the Welkes and he has even visited their property to see the situation for himself.
“I think they do have a heartfelt grievance,” Jongewaard said. “I think the turbines in that particular location were improperly sited. I have no problem saying that out loud.”
Jongewaard said Apex’s internal design standards would not allow for a situation like what the Welkes are experiencing.
“There are responsible ways to develop these projects and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “The last thing we would want is to have a situation like that. I have talked to DTE – not that I’ve got any authority with them – about at the bare minimum change those (turbine) blades and find a way to work with the Welkes to help them. That’s something that we feel passionate about.”
Don Schurr retired as the president of Greater Gratiot Development in 2017, where he was involved with that county’s wind turbine development. Schurr was in attendance at the Cato Township meeting as well.
“The Welke situation is, I think, tragic,” he said. “We certainly never envisioned that. What the Welkes are experiencing is unbelievable.”
‘YOU’VE GOT A HARD JOB’
Paul Main of Cato Township owns Main Farms and he has publicly stated that he has not signed any property with Apex and does not plan to. Main was present at the Planning Commission meeting and spoke during public comment.
“I want to really emphasize that it’s your job to protect property owners and residents of Cato Township,” Main told township officials. “That’s your job. I’m sure it’s not easy. This is a terribly controversial project. I’ve never seen anything like it. I just caution you to not go too fast. Do your homework. Time is on our side to do it right. We want to make sure that we do it right. I don’t like all this controversy around. I think it really divides us terribly. We’ve got to have restrictions, we’ve got to. We need some restrictions in that protect the residents and the property owners of Cato Township. You’ve got a hard job.”
Brenda Paris of Winfield Township spoke in support of the revenue that turbines could bring into Montcalm County. She said she enjoys biking locally, but struggles to ride on some of the deteriorating roads.
“I would encourage you to look at the prospect of the roads being improved – not only for vehicles but bikers,” Paris said. “I don’t see anything else coming to Montcalm County to help the financial situation. I think that’s forward thinking to look beyond and into the future. You should consider those things.”
Douglass Township Planning Commission Chairman Jack Jeppesen and his wife Kellie were also in attendance (Douglass Township is scheduled to have a July 28 public hearing on that township’s drafted amended wind ordinance).
“I want to say this meeting, everyone’s been very cordial and well behaved,” Kellie told Cato Township officials. “It’s been very nice to come here after some of the ones I’ve been to in my home township. It’s been very nice and quiet.”
Cato Township Planning Commission Chairman Phil Morrow, Secretary Kim Carr and planners Dave Behrenwald, Brandi Clark-Hubbard and Quanah Striker were all present for the July 16 special meeting to continue reviewing and amending the township’s current wind ordinance. About 30 audience members were present as well to listen to a lengthy discussion about turbine setbacks.
Clark-Hubbard had previously presented her planner colleagues with some “key evidence” about setbacks at a prior meeting, including safety recommendations as stated by turbine manufacturers.
“I got insinuated that I’m looking at the dark web and I’m going off the oil and gas lobby,” she said. “Our primary concern has to be the health, safety and welfare of this township.”
Clark-Hubbard would like to see setbacks of four times a turbine’s tip height from the property line of non-participating properties (Cato Township’s current updated draft ordinance calls for a turbine height limit of 500 feet).
“I think that four times is supportable,” she said. “You see it in a lot of restrictive ordinances that have withstood the legal review. You can’t infringe on your neighbor’s development rights. I really think four times is conservative given what these safety manuals say.”
As a compromise, Clark-Hubbard proposed setbacks of 2.5 times a turbine’s height from occupied homes of participants who agree to sign a waiver.
“I’m just wondering if it’s too restrictive,” Carr questioned. “I mean four times – they’re going to have to have four times on both sides of their parcel, right, if you have a road here and a road there? I think we should do some more homework on it.”
“Four times seems to be fairly common,” Clark-Hubbard responded. “We have townships in our county that are shooting for five times. I’ve heard residents ask for six times. I don’t know how much more research I can get.
“This company (Apex Clean Energy) has put 70 (turbines) in one township (in Isabella County), which scares the heck out of me,” Clark-Hubbard added. “I don’t want to be a sitting duck.”
“I don’t think anybody’s talking about putting 70 in one township,” Carr noted.
“Right now, but as this company starts putting them in more and more townships, they’re going to look at doing more, in my opinion,” Clark-Hubbard said.
“Not that I don’t appreciate the research that you’ve done, but I know your position and I wonder is your research subjective or have you researched other sources as well?” Carr asked. “I don’t know if we need to be at four (times).”
Behrenwald said he would comprise at three times setback, but Clark-Hubbard and Striker disagreed with this.
“It’s kind of the medium ground,” said Striker of four times setback. “Frankly, what I’m hearing from residents, it’s their minimum.”
“I think it’s within range for non-participating (properties),” Morrow agreed.
“This is one of the bigger topics,” Morrow added regarding the lengthy discussion about setbacks.
The next special Cato Township Planning Commission meeting to discuss amending the wind ordinance is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Aug. 11 at the Lakeview Community Center.
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