WINFIELD TOWNSHIP – To absolutely no one’s surprise, wind energy was a major topic at a three-hour solar energy ordinance meeting and public hearing hosted by Winfield Township officials last Saturday afternoon.
Tricia Korhorn of Winfield Township brought up the topic of wind during public comment by noting that Winfield Township Supervisor Phyllis Larson had previously said that the township wouldn’t begin working on a wind ordinance until they had an opportunity to hear from residents. The Planning Commission has been working on a drafted wind ordinance on and off since last year.
“We were told before the last Planning Commission meeting that wind would not be discussed, and it was, so everybody feels like they have to come to every meeting for public comment to talk about wind,” Korhorn noted. “So my question is: Are you going to set a time for the residents to come and discuss wind, or do we need to stay here now and discuss wind?”
“When we get to wind, there’ll be a public hearing when the time comes,” Planning Commission Chairman Chris Rader responded. “We’ll have a public hearing such as today.”
“Well, that’s after the (drafted) ordinance is done,” Korhorn pointed out.
“We’ll have several meetings on wind,” Rader said. “You’re more than welcome to attend.”
“OK, I guess we’re here talking about wind,” Korhorn summarized.
Planning Commissioner Julia Potratz agreed with Korhorn and said she’s been asking the same question about whether the township can host a Q&A event with speakers and attorneys to answer questions about wind energy.
“I would like to also know if we’re going to have a question and answer like we told them we would before we start working on a wind ordinance, or are we not doing that? Yes or no?” Potratz asked Larson.
“It’s been my plan that it would be discussed in a public hearing, but not when we’re doing the solar,” Larson responded. “I wanted to get one project done before we started the next one. We have been listening to what you (the audience) have to say, but we can do that. It’s up to the Planning Commission, basically. I would hope that there would be some point in time where we could meet again and you could have your comments and a question and answer time, but we have to have some knowledge of where we’re going with this, I realize that now.”
Kevin Murphy of Winfield Township then brought up the topic of conflict of interest, which is a concern of many due to the fact that Larson has signed a property lease with Apex Clean Energy (as have some other township officials) and Rader signed a November 2019 letter bearing Apex’s logo in support of wind turbines in Montcalm County.
“We believe there’s a conflict of interest in the decisions that some of these people are gonna make on our behalf for the township,” Murphy said. “Would you tell us what procedure you think we should step forward with?”
Rader asked Anthony Warren, an associate attorney with Fahey, Schultz, Burzych, Rhodes in Okemos, to share his interpretation of conflict of interest. Warren did so by using the township’s pending solar ordinance as an example.
“It’s a general ordinance that applies to everyone within in the township and it applies to no one at the same time because there are no existing large solar projects,” Warren noted.
Warren elaborated by saying that if a Planning Commission member intends to receive or negotiate a lease with a solar farm company, it would not create a conflict of interest regarding creating and voting on the solar ordinance because the Planning Commission’s recommendation to the township board doesn’t serve as final approval.
“There would be nothing actionable under Michigan law for conflicts of interest,” he said.
Warren noted that any township official with a contract or a financial gain or a close family relationship involved in a solar or wind project would generally be required to recuse themselves from voting on a specific special use permit, but not an overall ordinance. He admitted the topic of conflict of interest is complicated, noting that Michigan has three separate statutes addressing the issue.
“These (solar and wind) ordinances that we’re talking about are general,” he emphasized. “We are not dealing with a special land use permit application. We are not dealing with a site plan approval. Those are cases in which a conflict of interest is more likely to arise.”
Murphy asked again about township officials who have signed a lease or accepted money.
“Their decision on this ordinance or a future ordinance would not be considered a conflict of interest,” Warren repeated. “There is no applicant in this case. There is no hearing or decision that benefits anybody by virtue of a (general, overall township-wide) wind ordinance.
“They (conflict of interest issues) are something to be concerned about when it comes to specific applicants, but for general consideration of township regulations, it is not something that invites a conflict of interest just because a township officer is deciding what regulations the township will have in place,” Warren said.
Chloe Allen of Isabella County was the only person who spoke in support of wind turbines at Saturday’s meeting, and she arrived with and left with attorney Warren in the same vehicle.
“There seems to be a lot of misinformation coming out about wind turbines, that we’re discussing for whatever reason,” she said. “I just thought it’d be beneficial to say I have wind turbines in my backyard. We still have birds. I don’t have to sleep in my closet. They don’t make any noise. I’m able to live comfortably in my house surrounded by wind turbines.
“They’re just fans,” she said.
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