As Montcalm County townships decide how to write wind energy zoning ordinances, a local state representative is working on legislation to address wind turbine depreciation disputes in neighboring counties.
Rep. Pat Outman, R-Six Lakes, attended the July 19 meeting of the Pine Township Planning Commission where that township is just beginning to work on updating its wind ordinance.
“You’ve probably been to a lot of these meetings,” Planning Commission Chairman Scott Millard said to Outman in the audience. “What’s the general feeling about it?”
“From the townships that I’ve been to, there’s been good dialogue on both sides,” Outman noted. “Just from my personal interaction, it seems like far more people oppose these things (turbines) than support them. I’m still trying to gauge the rest of my district and the rest of my constituents and get a sense of how they’re feeling. I’m going to continue to do my due diligence and continue to go to these meetings and continue to dig in and get a sense of the rest of the district. Overall, I would say people are overwhelmingly opposed to these things.”
Outman noted while wind energy ordinances are simply a local zoning issue, he has legislation in the works to deal with the depreciation schedule of wind turbines, which he hopes will help Gratiot County, which he represents as part of the 70th District.
“There’s been some disagreements as far as which depreciation schedule to use as far as the wind turbines,” he said. “Gratiot County has been in litigation with the utility companies over the past 10 years, I would say. It’s really sucking them dry in terms of legal fees and all the other man-hours that go behind that. I’ve got some legislation to correct that. There would be no guessing as far as what depreciation schedule they’re going to be using. That’s something that is important to me at the state level.”
Outman told the Daily News that several counties and more than 80 townships in Michigan are currently in litigation against utility companies over a taxation dispute, including nine of 16 townships in Gratiot County, which has a total of 345 wind turbines.
“Gratiot County, along with the rest of the local governments in these lawsuits, tell me they were promised a certain tax revenue when these turbines were installed and then it inexplicably changed to a much lower value due to a change in the depreciation table used to assess,” Outman said. “Taxation based on any table other than that which was initially represented to our community leaders results in a loss of millions of dollars in revenue, which is why they asked me to get involved legislatively. My legislation would revert back to the original depreciation table that was presented to communities where wind turbines were put in place. It’s a huge deal for my district in terms of finally resolving this issue and avoiding the repayment of millions in reimbursement.”
Outman said he’s hoping to get his legislation introduced by the end of this summer.
News articles in the Gratiot County Herald and the Morning Sun have detailed how taxation disputes with Consumers Energy and DTE could cut future revenues of Gratiot County’s five wind farms and could even require the repayment of some taxes already levied there.
The State Tax Commission in 2011 adopted a new tax table which started at 80% of the true cash value and then declined to 30% in the seventh year, which would have resulted in the loss of more than $3.2 million in tax dollars for Gratiot County between 2012 and 2019, according to the Morning Sun. In response to this, Gratiot County and several other counties formed the Michigan Renewable Energy Collaborative (MREC) in 2012 to combine their financial resources to challenge the change in wind turbine tax collections.
In 2014, the State Tax Commission adopted yet another tax table that remains in effect today, which if applied would have reduced Gratiot County’s tax revenue from 2012 to 2019 by an additional $1.36 million, according to the Morning Sun. After this change, the MREC commissioned Appraisal Economic Inc. to create its own tax multiplier table. In doing so, Appraisal Economic developed a more conservative table using industry best practices and data and all assessors in Gratiot County have chosen to use this new table rather than the State Tax Commission multiplier table.
This disagreement has resulted in massive litigation – 1,109 tax appeal cases have been filed with the Michigan Tax Tribunal by utility companies and private developers regarding wind energy systems throughout Michigan, according to the Morning Sun. There are currently 594 wind energy system personal property tax appeals pending at the Tax Tribunal, which have been consolidated by wind parks into 17 separate cases.
PINE TOWNSHIP BEGINS WORKING ON WIND
During a Pine Township Board meeting this past March, resident David Reeve asked whether the township planned to update its wind ordinance to address modern turbines. Pine Township Supervisor Bill Drews responded that Reeve was “a little behind” as the township already had a wind ordinance in place (referring to an ordinance that hasn’t been updated since 2016).
Four months later, it’s become clear that it was the township that was a little behind.
The Pine Township Planning Commission met for the first in a series of special meetings on July 19 to work on updating its wind ordinance. Right off the bat, planners seemed surprised to learn that their current ordinance doesn’t limit turbine height. The ordinance says “any system over 60 feet” needs to meet certain requirements, but it doesn’t specify a maximum height.
“There isn’t really any type of height restriction,” Millard noted. “I think at the time we did this back then (in 2016), a big windmill was 400 feet. Today they’re a lot bigger. We’ve really gotta specify some type of height because this leaves it wide open right here. If they want a 600-foot tower today they can do it as long as they meet the setback.”
Planner Bob Behrenwald pointed out that another portion of the ordinance limits height to 100 feet, but Millard said he thinks that is referring to turbines for private use, although ordinance doesn’t specify.
“That doesn’t really make sense,” Millard said. “It doesn’t spell it out either way.”
The current ordinance limits setbacks at the total height of the tower plus 20 feet, but again, there is no height restriction.
“It’s probably time we have some set numbers,” Millard summarized.
Planner Chris Bell suggested Pine Township just use Sidney Township’s newly created ordinance, a comment which received cheers and applause from some audience members. Sidney’s ordinance limits turbine height to 300 feet with 3,000 feet or five times the tip height setback.
“I haven’t even seen Sidney’s, but I know it was very restrictive,” Millard noted.
Planner Gary Christensen said he recently attended an Apex Clean Energy open house.
“I asked about the height of these things,” he said. “They want 600-footers here. I asked is there a chance that you would ever want to put one up less than 600? No, because I guess they’re not economical anymore. You set an ordinance at 400 feet and they’re not gonna wanna build here. And they still have the right to.”
“It’d be a special use permit,” Millard said. “So it doesn’t necessarily stop them from building a 600-foot tower, they would just need a special use permit to do it. I don’t think there’s gonna be a township out there where this isn’t going to be a special use. Even if your ordinance says 450 feet – that doesn’t mean 450 works the same in your backyard as it does in someone else’s backyard. Every location is a different site.”
Millard ended the wind ordinance discussion after just 45 minutes with planners agreeing to look at wind ordinances from Sidney Township and Pierson Township before Pine’s next special meeting, which is scheduled for 5 p.m. on August 2. Millard then took public comments for more than an hour before adjourning the meeting.
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