MONTCALM TOWNSHIP – Nearly a year to the day after planners first brought forth an amendment to this township’s wind energy ordinance, that ordinance will be amended again – this time starting from scratch.
During Wednesday’s quarterly meeting of the Montcalm Township Planning Commission, commissioners discussed the ordinance for the first time since March.
The township’s current ordinance, originally adopted in 2013, has been deemed inadequate by both supporters and detractors of wind energy turbines, and as a result, the Planning Commission began efforts last year to amend the ordinance.
On Aug. 5, 2020, the commission voted unanimously to revise the section of the ordinance pertaining to private and commercial wind energy conversion facilities (turbines), with proposed changes including items such as the height of turbines, setbacks of those turbines from property lines and noise levels produced by turbines.
However, in November 2020, residents of the township vocalized concerns over some of the proposed changes, such as removing any height requirements from the previously established limit of 400 feet.
Additionally, residents took issue with Commission Chairman Richard Karnatz participating in discussion and voting on issues related to wind energy, as he had previously signed a land lease agreement with Apex Clean Energy, which is currently working to establish its “Montcalm Wind” project, which could bring as many as 75 600-plus foot wind turbines to Montcalm County.
While public outcry over the amended ordinance was front and center, the issue sat quietly for several months.
The Planning Commission’s scheduled meeting for Dec. 3, 2020, was canceled as a result of increased COVID-19 cases in the area (the township hall was closed into December and January).
The Planning Commission eventually met again on March 3 and June 2 of this year, in which the ordinance and proposed amendment was revisited with discussion among commissioners and the public, but no decisions on the ordinance were made.
Members of the public again took issue with Karnatz at those meetings, as he occasionally participated in the discussion on the subject of wind energy while chairing the meetings. However, Wednesday’s meeting marked the first time that Karnatz officially recused himself when wind energy was discussed, as he took a seat in the audience and left Vice Chairman Jeff Dolphin to chair the remainder of the meeting.
From that point on, the four remaining commissioners – Dolphin, Secretary Erin Nerychel, Commissioner Bob Hemmes and Board Liaison Jessica Shearer – discussed the fate of the ordinance.
By the end of the evening, commissioners reached a consensus that they need to go back to the beginning.
“We still have a lot of work to do on this, to even get started on it,” Dolphin said. “I know I have not applied as much time to it as I would like to be able to, but I have not had the time this summer. That’s why we’re having the discussion about having more meetings. We’re not ready to do much on this yet because we still need to do a lot more work before this can truly move forward.”
As the commissioners poured through the current ordinance, they pointed out that a multitude of items – from a lack of proper definitions to the complete absence of items including how to handle the decommissioning of turbines – left the ordinance subject to ridicule.
Rather than continue to work with the proposed amendments originally considered last year, planners determined through feedback from the audience that it would be best to move forward using another township’s ordinance as a template.
Montcalm Township resident Richelle Lentz said she took it upon herself to highlight key items in Sidney Township’s new wind energy ordinance, which was approved in July, that are missing or she believes need revising within Montcalm Township’s ordinance, offering up her work for the Planning Commission to use.
“I have provided you guys with a pretty big ordinance, pretty similar to what Sidney just passed, and I wonder if it wouldn’t make sense to use that as your starting point and use that,” she said. “It kind of has the definitions and all of that stuff in it and it might save you some time.”
Dolphin said he had read through Lentz’s proposed ordinances changes and amendments and wasn’t opposed to considering her document as a starting point.
“I reviewed yours again, the one you submitted to us, and it covers most everything (though) I may not agree with everything that’s in it,” he said.
Dolphin said he had concerns with the Commission potentially drafting an ordinance that could be deemed too restrictive or exclusionary. He pointed to legislation pending in the state House in Lansing that aims to ease restrictions on gravel pits throughout the state.
In June, the state Senate approved Senate Bill 429, which would move the permitting process for sand mining operations from local entities such as townships and cities to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy.
“I feel like we could get to the point with the gravel pits and the state of Michigan because we’ve lost local control of gravel pits,” Dolphin said. “As we make things more and more restrictive, and the state decides that it wants it, they will supersede us. I do not want to lose whatever local control we do have. I feel that way with some of the setback restrictions (that have been proposed).”
Sidney Township resident Robert Scott also presented the Commission with copies of the wind energy ordinances recently approved by Sidney and Pierson townships.
“I think, whether you like Pierson’s or Sidney’s, I would start with one ordinance and just run through it,” Scott said. “You can disagree with setbacks, shadow flicker and everything else in the ordinance, but at least it’s there in front of you. Then you can adjust the numbers and discuss what is best for your township. Then you won’t miss something. There are lots of things in those other ordinances that are simply there to protect the township – escrows, decommissioning provisions, putting money upfront for costs – it’s all in those ordinances. I think that’s probably what Richelle has offered you already.”
Each commissioner expressed a desire to move forward in that manner.
“I personally think this (current ordinance) is a disaster,” Hemmes said. “I think we’re way better off finding something that’s coherent and see if we can make it acceptable to our township. The one we have now, it’s really outdated.”
All four commissioners said they’d be willing to evaluate and eventually choose an existing ordinance to use as a template.
“I think it would be good to present one to three of these and go from there, choosing the one that gives us the best starting point,” Dolphin said.
When asked why the commission hasn’t been acting at a faster pace to draft a new ordinance – as other townships such as Sidney have already completed the process from start to finish – Dolphin said several factors have come into play, including a desire to remaining transparent with the public and keeping all conversation on the subject within posted public meetings.
“We’ve all looked at this, but we don’t have any discussion until we are here as a full board,” he said. “It is not my decision and we don’t discuss this outside of our meetings because then we would be in violation of the Open Meetings Act.”
Planners also reached a consensus to disregard the proposed amended wind energy ordinance that remains posted on the township’s website.
“We really have not dealt with that and we’ve just said right now that we’re not going to use it,” Hemmes said. “That one we have rejected had advice from Apex, but actually, I’ll be clear – Nothing really happened from there. All we did was ask the attorney to review the changes they (Apex) proposed.”
Going forward, Dolphin said he expects the board to approve a special meeting of the Planning Commission in September and potentially schedule additional meetings from there so they can move at a faster pace in working to approve a newly-amended ordinance.
“We’re going to review these, get some ideas together for the next meeting to start moving forward on creating an amendment and/or a new ordinance,” he said.
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