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Bloomer Township Planning Commission tweaking wind turbine noise limits

BLOOMER TOWNSHIP – The Bloomer Township Planning Commission is working with their attorney to make turbine sound limits more restrictive in their pending wind ordinance.

Chairman Doug Proctor and planners John Dennis, Ed Hagerman, Craig Keiffer, Mark Ryan and Gail Witter were all present for Tuesday’s meeting while Secretary Tara Chapko (who is also a township board member) was absent.

Only five people were in the audience (including this reporter and two township officials) and no public comments were given.

The Planning Commission has been working on a wind and solar ordinance for a year and a half now. Most recently, the Planning Commission in July asked their attorney Bill Fahey of Okemos-based law firm Fahey Schultz Burzych Rhodes to update the drafted ordinance with the same turbine noise standards as Pierson Township’s ordinance.

Bloomer’s draft ordinance previously listed turbine noise levels at 50 db(A) as measured from a participating occupied structure or from a non-participating property line and 45 db(A) as measured from a non-participating occupied structure.

As requested, Fahey updated Bloomer’s draft ordinance to match Pierson’s – setting noise levels at 45 db(A) in the daytime and 39 db(A) at night, along with lengthy language about oscillations, sound vibrations, noise measurements, quality measurements and reporting —however, Fahey voiced some concerns with Pierson’s noise language.

“Although we made changes to the draft amendment consistent with the Pierson model’s sound standards, we strongly recommend that the township does not adopt those sound provisions,” Fahey wrote in a July 19 email to Proctor. “The Pierson model’s sound standards are more restrictive than the prior draft in some ways; however, we have strong concerns that they (1) do not appropriately cite applicable sound measurement scales and content; (2) are too complicated (or impossible) for the township to enforce and (3) are poorly drafted, which may lead to concerns with validity and enforceability (for example, they do not address participating properties).

“If the (Bloomer) township desires to impose stricter sound standards, we recommend simply lowering acceptable sound outputs in db(A) for participating and non-participating properties respectively,” Fahey wrote. “Another option the township could consider is hiring a consultant, such as an acoustical engineer, to verify and/or assist the township with drafting advanced sound regulations governing oscillations and tonal noise, among other things addressed in Pierson.

“Although similar sound provisions have been adopted by other townships, we believe there has been little verification in the accuracy or the enforceability of these draft provisions,” Fahey concluded.

“I gave him (Fahey) Pierson’s and he looked at their model,” Proctor summarized for his fellow planners during Tuesday’s meeting. “He’s very well-versed in this stuff and he didn’t recommend us adopting Pierson’s standards. He did rewrite it, kind of massaged it a little bit. What he suggests is simply lower the db(A) levels that’s more acceptable for participating and non-participating properties so that they’re more restrictive, instead of trying to put a whole bunch of wording in there that he said is going to be very hard to enforce without hiring engineers and experts. I think he feels we should simply look at lowering the db(A) levels to make them acceptable.

“I don’t disagree with him,” Proctor added. “I think maybe we just look at lower levels that are more restrictive. I’m going to have to explore that to see what a more restrictive level would be. I’m going to have to dig into it. I think we’re close. We just gotta look at this noise thing and figure out something that will work. That’s our next hurdle.”

Bloomer Township Zoning Administrator Tony Brown said he has a tree stand deer blind north of Ithaca in Gratiot County within 100 yards of a turbine.

“The only thing I ever hear when that thing is running is the wind going by the blades,” Brown said, making a very soft whooshing noise.

“I’ve got a friend who’s right under one in his deer stand and he said ‘I don’t really hear it, you can hear something … but it doesn’t drown out other noise or anything,’” Proctor added.

“When our power plant kicks on, it’s a whole lot louder than anything you’ve got from a wind turbine,” Dennis noted. “It roars, I can hear it a mile away.”

“The power plant is loud,” Proctor agreed. “It’s a roar, there’s no doubt about it.”

The Renaissance Power Plant in Carson City opened in 2002 and was at that time known as Dynegy. The natural gas facility was purchased by DTE Energy in 2015 and is currently owned by NAES Corp.

Fahey also addressed solar/wind site plan language in his July 19 email to Proctor.

“For large solar energy systems and wind parks, we also slightly revised site plan language to allow discretion from the Planning Commission related to a complete site plan,” Fahey wrote. “We have recently experienced a zoning ordinance in another township’s project that was very strict in its site plan dimensioning standards, etc. Because these projects are geographically large, we added language to allow the PC to waive certain site plan standards if inapplicable.”

Bloomer Township’s draft wind ordinance is currently written as follows:

• Turbine height is limited to 500 feet tall; however, the township board may approve a turbine height greater than 500 feet if the applicant clearly demonstrates that such a greater height would be in the interest of persons and properties within and surrounding the wind park.

• Setbacks of two times a turbine’s height are required from any occupied structure and 1.5 times the turbine’s height from any road or utility. No turbine may be located closer than 2,000 feet from any non-participating property unless the township board expressly provides in a special use permit.

• Shadow flicker to an occupied building is limited to 30 hours per year.

• Wind park construction must be completed within 12 months after commencement of construction.

• An avian sensor must be installed on each turbine to monitor and mitigate impacts to airborne wildlife, such as bats and birds; or alternatively, a continuously operating system may be installed in the wind park.

The draft ordinance also includes language regarding ice detection and fire suppression.

PENDING SOLAR PROJECT

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Brown reported that Mike Ingraham of Bloomer Township requested a permit to install a 1,000-square-foot solar power unit on his property; however, the township doesn’t yet have a solar ordinance.

“Everything is still kind of in limbo with the ordinance because the solar is tied in with the wind and we really don’t have anything designating what we can and can’t do,” Brown said. “So we took it upon ourselves to make sure that they stayed within the setbacks of our proposed building setbacks that would be there and that it didn’t face toward anybody’s home or toward any road right-of-way that would give an issue with driving.

“We just let him go ahead and do that without issuing any permits because we really don’t have any guidelines set in place to issue permits at this time,” Brown summarized. “At this time we don’t have it, so we can’t enforce it.”

ZONING CHANGES PROPOSED

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Brown proposed making several changes to the township’s current zoning ordinance – one regarding building setbacks and one regarding farm animals.

Brown said current zoning guidelines are “very confusing to homeowners” regarding side and rear setbacks of buildings.

“Each zoning district has different setbacks,” he said. “As a builder and as a zoning administrator, I don’t understand or see any reason at all why if you have a farm that’s 40 acres you can build within 20 feet of the line, and if you have a home on Garlock Road it has to be 40 feet from the sideline, and if you have a home on Bloomer Street it has to be 15 feet from the sideline. I just don’t understand.”

Brown proposed making all side and rear setbacks 15 feet regardless of what zoning district a building is in. He wants to leave front setbacks as is for now based on each zoning district.

“Fifteen feet allows a vehicle to travel around it (a building),” he noted. “If you had a well in the back yard, you could move a well truck back there.”

Brown also addressed a second “confusing” item under the farm portion of the township’s ordinance, which states that dwelling units are limited to a maximum of one farm animal per two acres.

“We have pieces of property within our township that were 40-acre farms but they’ve changed hands and they had a house on that farm,” Brown noted. “The home may be less than 2 acres of ground, but we’ve sold the house and the barn to an individual and then we’ve sold the farm ground around it another individual. Some of the people purchasing them are the Stillwell community, older Mennonite, whatever that might be. As well all know, they travel strictly with horse or horse and buggy. That’s how they get around. We’re selling homes and properties to individuals who do not have cars and by ordinance, we do not have enough property to have even one horse on their land, let alone two. It’s changed since 1994 when these ordinances were put into place.”

Brown said a local man recently applied for a permit to build a building on his 1-acre property to keep his horse in.

“I was in a catch-22 situation as to how to deal with that,” Brown said. “I wanted to bring it before the board so we can at least think about it. These individuals grew up here and now their families are starting to stay here and they’re marrying off and they’re buying whatever is available, which might only be a house on a half-acre of ground – and that doesn’t allow them their only means of transportation.”

The Planning Commission is next scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. on Nov. 9.

The Bloomer Township Board is next scheduled to meet at 8 p.m. on Monday. Visit bloomertownship.org for more information.