WINFIELD TOWNSHIP – The Winfield Township Planning Commission continued to work on creating a wind ordinance Monday evening despite multiple audience members asking for those who had signed easement agreements with a wind developer to recuse themselves.
More than 100 people were in attendance at the nearly three-hour meeting held at Crossroads Worship Center just north of Howard City. All seven commissioners were present – Chairman Chris Rader and planners John Black, Ben Gordon, Ken Fisk, Ken Kool, Julia Potratz and Dale Ulrich. The Planning Commission currently has two vacancies due to the death of Carolyn Kelsey and the recent resignation of Travis Carr.
Also present was attorney Kyle O’Meara of law firm Fahey Schultz Burzych Rhodes in Okemos and O’Meara explained his interpretation of conflict of interest and the “Rule of Necessity” – all of which were very similar to an explanation already provided to the Planning Commission by attorney Bill Fahey in December 2020 (which the Daily News previously covered in the story “Attorney advises Winfield Township officials on pending wind ordinance”). O’Meara’s statements were also very similar to his conflict of interest advice to the Maple Valley Township Planning Commission earlier this month (which the Daily News covered in an Aug. 9 story, “Maple Valley Township planners work on wind ordinance with attorney”).
Winfield Township has been working with a draft wind ordinance since mid-2020 which is based on an ordinance from Gratiot County’s Pine River Township. The draft lists turbine setback from occupied buildings at no less than the greater of either two times its hub height or 1,000 feet; turbines shall not be located within 1.5 times its hub height of the property line of a non-participating lot; turbines shall be set back from the nearest public road at a distance of no less than 400 feet or 1.5 times its hub height (whichever is greater); and the sound limit for turbines is listed at 55 decibels. The draft doesn’t specify a height limit for turbines.
SETBACK ON SETBACKS
Winfield Township planners primarily discussed sound and setbacks Monday. Most planners seemed to be in agreement with lowering the sound limit from 55 decibels to 45 decibels, which would match the township’s pending solar ordinance.
However, planners were divided when it came to turbine setbacks. Fisk suggested setbacks of two times a turbine’s height for non-participating properties, but Kool and Potratz were both in favor of a setback of four times from non-participating property lines, noting that participating properties could have as small a setback as they wished.
“If we make that kind of a setback (four times), then the (wind) developer may have to knock on more doors and we’d get more participating properties and hey, we’d get more people benefitting in the same way that some people are benefiting exclusively and heck, it becomes something more people in our community want than are afraid of,” Kool theorized. “It goes to them (the wind developer) to bring in more participating properties. Let it fall on them.”
“If everything was four times the tip height, it would be very restrictive,” Black countered.
“If we get too restrictive, we force them out of here, well, we won now, but then they’re gonna come in and they’re gonna say, well, guess what, you’re gonna have a wind tower over there and we’re not gonna have any say,” Gordon added. “It’s eminent domain if the government wants …”
Gordon’s comments were drowned out by yells and protests from audience members.
“We’re not there now so I don’t know why we’re assuming that’s going to happen,” Potratz responded. “That’s not where we are. Where we are now is we do have a choice and we do need to be responsible and protect everyone in the township.”
“The problem with the four times, I mean, maybe that works in Gratiot or Beal City where it’s wide open, but how many wide-open 120-, 160-acre fields do we have in Winfield Township?” Rader countered.
Potratz asked O’Meara for his opinion on setbacks. The attorney recommended planners review a variety of ordinances and bring their feedback to a future meeting.
Public comment was dominated by people voicing their concerns with at least four township officials who have signed wind energy easement agreement with Apex Clean Energy.
Winfield Township Supervisor Phyllis Larson has signed with Apex, along with Gordon, Rader and Ulrich, according to Robert Scott of Sidney Township who has been collecting easement agreements recorded with Montcalm County (CORRECTION: This story has been corrected – John Black has not signed with Apex. The Daily News inadvertently named Black instead of Gordon in a previous version of this story). Scott handed out copies of Apex’s lease to O’Meara so the attorney could read about the promises of financial benefit.
“How that’s not a conflict of interest is ethically beyond my understanding,” Scott declared.
Tricia Korhorn of Winfield Township voiced concern that it was some of the conflicted township officials who provided the Pine River Township ordinance to O’Meara’s law firm.
“We do have conflicted officials,” Korhorn said. “To spend any more time to debate this simple ordinance is wasting our money and our time because the residents do have referendum and we will use it, and we do have the ability to recall our officials and we will use it. So stop spinning your wheels, listen to what we’re saying and continue to work on a restrictive ordinance that the residents are happy with. Most of the township does not want wind turbines here. You need to listen.
“If you signed a lease with Apex or any other wind company, you need to recuse yourself, you are conflicted, there’s no doubt about that in most minds,” Dave Meyers of Winfield Township said. “You have something to benefit where others do not. Be careful about the advice that you get from your attorney. Make sure you’re getting good advice from someone who’s not conflicted.”
Sherrill Houser of Maple Valley Township called O’Meara “pro-wind,” to which the attorney responded, “It’s my duty to work on behalf of the township and address the needs of the township. I’m not pro-wind. I’m not anti-wind. I’m a municipal attorney.”
Houser responded by saying township officials had better listen to attorney Joshua Nolan of Nolan Law in Ohio, “or we will take you to the cleaners,” Houser declared.
Others in the audience spoke in support of wind energy, such as Chris Johnson of Pine Township, who shared how Apex supporters had a float in last weekend’s Danish Festival parade in Greenville.
“We had about four people who said ‘we don’t want one’ but we also had over a dozen applauses from the crowd,” Johnson said.
“Liar!” a woman in the audience responded.
“Who called me a liar? Really?” a disgusted Johnson asked, turning to face the audience. The woman did not identify herself.
Lisa Black of Winfield Township (the wife of township official Black) also spoke in support of wind.
“This is first and foremost a land use right,” she said. “I don’t understand the need to stop a farmer or landowner from doing what he or she feels is a right choice for their land. It’s said a farmer is a bad neighbor because of wanting a wind turbine. These farmers work seven days a week sacrificing time with friends and family. They’re not out and about riding around on the lake, going on motorcycle rides, doing all sorts of other things. Most people don’t have the courage it takes to do this. The dedication of a farmer is like no other, many times putting crops and animals ahead of his or her own needs. The next time you’re enjoying time with friends and family, just remember somebody’s working hard so you can enjoy pizza or ice cream or a steak on the grill. This is pride and accomplishment, and this is a land-use right. This is great for the community and the planet. Does it sound like that’s all about money? I don’t think so.”
As the meeting ended, Potratz voiced her concern about conflict of interest issues at the township board level.
“I think it’s pretty clear and it’s the opinion of many people that there is an ethical and legal conflict of interest here if you have a lease,” Potratz said. “Given that, I think it’s important that we look at filling the two vacancies (on the Planning Commission) prior to any more discussion on this. Ideally, that would be people without a conflict of interest, otherwise we are creating the rule of necessity just by appointing people with a conflict.”
“How could anybody in the township not have a conflict of interest one way or the other that doesn’t involve the township?” Ulrich asked.
“Money!” some people yelled from the audience.
“The conflict I’m referring to is an actual lease with Apex. That’s what I’m referring to. Does that answer your question?” Potratz asked.
“Eh, probably not,” Ulrich responded.
“Duh!” a man yelled from the audience.
The Winfield Township Planning Commission is not scheduled to meet again until November.
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