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Montcalm Township planners vote to abandon proposed wind ordinance

MONTCALM TOWNSHIP – One meeting at a time, planners are steadily working their way toward establishing a new wind energy ordinance for the township – even if that means abandoning prior proposals.

During Wednesday evening’s special meeting of the Montcalm Township Planning Commission, commissioners took their first concrete step in choosing a direction to go forward by voting unanimously, with Chairman Richard “Dick” Karnatz recused, to abandon a proposed amended wind ordinance that has been under evaluation since August of last year and instead develop a new proposal.

The proposed amended ordinance itself, which would update the township’s current wind energy ordinance in regards to regulating wind turbine projects, never moved forward to the point of receiving a public hearing after initially being adopted in draft form more than a year ago.

After it was scheduled for a public hearing in December 2020, which was canceled due to COVID-19, public outcry over the amended ordinance grew after details that representatives from Apex Clean Energy had provided input on the amended ordinance through email had been made apparent at a Township Board meeting.

Additionally, with Karnatz having to recuse himself from all wind-related discussions and votes due to having signed a property-lease agreement with Apex, and township attorney Jeffrey Slugget having provided suggestions that countered several items within the proposed ordinance, commissioners have gone back and forth over how to move forward throughout the summer.

“The attorney made several recommendations about what to do about the changes that were recommended by the wind company and most of those changes were positive and I thought constructive,” Commissioner Robert “Bob” Hemmes said. “All the things that the wind company suggested we do were not good for the safety and wellness of the community.”

Hemmes said such suggestions from Apex included having no height limit for turbines, having setbacks from non-participating property lines from the height of the turbine and continuing with what he described as “poor quality” noise limits.

“In other words, in my opinion, all the recommendations that were made were not useful,” he said. “The good thing is the attorney corrected a lot of those.”

Despite the corrections, Hemmes said he felt it was best if the commission started from scratch and worked with a wind energy ordinance template from another township.

“Overall I think the current ordinance that we have is pretty bad, it’s pretty weak,” he said. “I don’t think there’s much in it that is actually useful … overall I’d recommend, as a (committee) member, that we scrap that approach and find an alternative to it – Sidney Township, for example.”

Hemmes then made a motion to abandon the proposed amended ordinance and work to find an alternate ordinance to eventually adopt, which was supported by Commissioner and Township Clerk Jessica Shearer.

While the vote for the motion was unanimous, Commission Vice Chairman Jeff Dolphin said he would have preferred to continue working off of the amended ordinance.

“Almost everything the lawyer suggested were good things that need to be clarified,” he said. “We could have worked from our working model as well and expanded upon that with those suggestions and probably added more to it as well.”

Dolphin said he was disappointed that at this stage, the commission is essentially looking to start from scratch.

“We’re not as far as I thought we would be,” he said. “I would have preferred to work with our existing model that we have and move forward from there.”

As a result, in future meetings, Dolphin said the casual back-and-forth discussion that regularly occurs at meetings between commissioners and the public on the topic of the ordinance would likely come to an end, stressing that the commission needed to become more focused on finding a specific model to work off of in creating a new ordinance.

“As we get to a working model, I’ll probably ignore all of you,” he said in jest as members of the audience laughed. “I’m not saying we won’t have public comment. I’m saying public comment would be at the end of the meeting.”

While Hemmes expressed a desire to utilize a model such as the Sidney Township wind ordinance approved in July or a proposed ordinance from township resident Richelle Lentz, Dolphin said he had concerns that those examples could be too restrictive.

“To me, the important thing about Sidney Township’s (ordinance), it’s one that is an adjacent township,” Hemmes said. “That’s really critical to me. If we could get four townships on the same page, that would be a major step forward. There’s so much crossover, anything one township is going to do is going to affect another township.”

“When I read through Sidney’s and these other ones, I worry that they are so restrictive that there is the possibility of litigation or the state coming in,” Dolphin responded. “I’m not an attorney, I don’t know how to fight all the rules of exclusionary zoning – which is what these read as because the setbacks are so great there might be only one place in the entire township you can put something in.”

Sidney Township’s ordinance currently has setbacks, set from any property line, at three times the total height of a turbine from the blade at its highest point.

With Apex currently proposing turbines in Montcalm County at more than 600 feet in height, Dolphin said he felt such a restriction could be viewed as exclusionary.

“There are a lot of things in here (Sidney Township wind energy ordinance) that I think should be added into ours, but I think the setbacks are way overkill,” he said. “I don’t want somebody telling me what I can do with my property that’s 2,000 feet away from my house. I don’t want to get into where we are writing ordinances that are exclusionary and taking away property rights, because that is what these ordinances do.”

As discussion amongst the commissioners concluded, Dolphin asked that discussion on the subject resume when the Commission meets again in October.

“Let’s bring back what we want next month and try to work on it a little more, maybe even on a working model, working off of Richell’s (proposed ordinance) and our own,” he said. “Let’s get something to move forward on for next month and we can discuss from there.”

Hemmes added that he felt a joint meeting of the commission, Township Board and Zoning Board of Appeals may be an option to utilize to find “common direction” regarding developing the new wind ordinance.

“That’s a course of action we haven’t really examined at this point and I think it might be getting close in time to have a joint meeting,” he said.

However, Dolphin said he felt such a step would be premature at this time.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said. “I’d like to have a better working model (first) so the joint meeting can be on things like heights and setbacks.”

Public comment

Several members of the audience came forward expressing a desire that the planning commission work to create an ordinance that would prevent wind turbines from coming to the township.

That included Montcalm Township resident Pam Hemmes, wife of Commissioner Bob Hemmes, who said she doesn’t believe Dolphin’s fear of exclusionary zoning is warranted.

However, in expressing her thoughts, conversation between Pam and Dolphin became a back-and-forth of opinion, with Pam expressing concern that she was not being permitted to speak openly during her allotted three minutes of time.

“I think we could give you 13 to 15 ordinances that are more restrictive than the wind companies want that are not being challenged,” she said. “There’s a restrictive ordinance in Elmer Township that was challenged and the township won. That’s what an ordinance does, it restricts things so that people are kept safe and kept comfortable.”

“I know where you stand,” Dolphin interjected. “I don’t want to hear repeats of the same thing I hear every time I’m at a meeting. We have both – landowners who are against it and landowners who have the property and are able to do it, with minimal, if any impact, on others, other than visual.”

“I don’t agree with that,” Pam responded.

“I know you don’t agree with that, but from all the studies that I’ve found that I can see, you can get them far enough away – 55 decibels is as loud as the conversation we are having right now,” Dolphin said.

“2,000 feet would be a minimum – read some of the studies that we give to you,” Pam responded, referring to “we” as those who are opposed to wind turbines coming to the township .

“I’ve read those as well,” Dolphin said.

After then talking over each other, Dolphin asked that he and Pam agree to “have a difference of opinion.”

“You need to give me my three minutes,” Pam said. “You interrupted me and I’ve been pretty polite.”

“I’m sorry, but I hear the same thing every month,” Dolphin responded.

“Well, we don’t agree on it … but I believe that our township is not the right township for these, on the level that the wind companies want to bring in,” Pam said. “I think people will be hurt.”

Dolphin apologized for the exchange between himself and Pam while expressing a desire for meetings to focus on allowing Commissioners to spend time drafting an ordinance as opposed to deliberating with members of the public.

“I know exactly where you are at and I apologize,” Dolphin said. “(But) I don’t need the same thing repeated every month. It’s just a headache.”

“Well, we feel we have to try and convince you of the things that we believe, too,” Pam responded.

Montcalm Township resident Paul Houghtaling asked if there was any way to have the public vote on the issue, to which Dolphin informed him the only way that could occur is after an ordinance is approved, a referendum would have to be placed on the ballot to overturn the ordinance.

“At what point do we the people get to look at that and say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’?” Houghtaling asked. “My hearing was blown out during the Vietnam War. I moved to the country to try to avoid a lot of noise. I’ve got PTSD and that’s very difficult to deal with. I really don’t need the sound of helicopter blades or jet engines around me.”

“I don’t think a decibel level of that magnitude would be allowed,” Dolphin responded. “If I have anything to say about it, it won’t be to the level of a jet engine or helicopter.”

Douglass Township resident Kellie Jeppesen supported a concept brought forward earlier in the meeting from Zoning Administrator Mike Nelson, that members of the commission take time to visit other areas of the state where turbines are currently located to witness first-hand accounts.

“Go to the Thumb, go up north, and talk to people,” she said. “Don’t take, and no offense to Sidney, but Sidney’s ordinance – that is not currently in your spot. You guys need to, whether you take a road trip, go and listen to them, talk to people, talk to the other township planning commissioners, and do a field trip. Isn’t that how you educate yourselves? Not just by reading and listening to public comment, but by listening to the rhetoric?”