GREENVILLE – After nearly 18 months of canceled meetings due to COVID-19 and a controversy over a conflict of interest, it appears this township’s wind energy ordinance is nearing the moment it will finally be amended.
During a special meeting of the Montcalm Township Planning Commission on Tuesday, members of the commission, with Commission Chairman Richard “Dick” Karnatz recused, voted unanimously to add what may be considered the final revisions in amending the township’s zoning ordinance “To Permit And Regulate Wind Energy Conversion Systems (WECS).”
It’s a process that began in August 2020, when a previously-amended version of the township’s current WECS ordinance was in the process of being finalized, to be recommended for approval to the Montcalm Township Board.
However, that amended version was eventually dissolved following community uproar over input on the draft of the ordinance from Apex Clean Energy, the Virginia-based company with plans to construct wind turbines throughout Montcalm County.
Following several canceled meetings last winter due to COVID, another controversy came to light as township attorney Jeffrey Sluggett delivered an opinion that as a property leaseholder with Apex, Karnatz had demonstrated a conflict of interest in his position as a member of the Planning Commission in working on the WECS ordinance.
Beginning in the summer of 2021, Karnatz began recusing himself at all Planning Commission meetings once discussions on the WECS ordinance took place, leaving the remaining four commissioners to complete a draft ordinance.
After months of discussion, that process appears to be nearing its end, with commissioners making their own final changes to the draft ordinance before sending it to legal counsel and/or a township planner.
“Anything else we need to or can address?” Commission Vice Chairman Jeff Dolphin asked after about 40 minutes of discussion on the draft ordinance.
“I’m good with it,” Commissioner Robert “Bob” Hemmes said, along with consensus from Secretary Erin Nerychel and Township Board Liaison Jessica Shearer. “I think there’s an awful lot of stuff in here that is best discussed after we have an attorney’s opinion about it.”
With that, Dolphin said he would personally revise the draft version of the ordinance to include all suggested changes and additions made by the commission.
Once revised, the fate of the draft ordinance would come before the Township Board next month with the potential to be sent on to legal counsel for further review and input.
Among changes made to the ordinance, including changes made during previous meetings, are:
• Setbacks of turbines on participating properties from four times the tip height of a turbine to 1,250 feet from the nearest inhabited welling.
• Setbacks of turbines from non-participating property owners at four times the tip height of a turbine from the property line of a non-participating property owner.
• 500-foot maximum turbine height
• No shadow flicker on any non-participating properties (with exception of waivers).
• More restrictive fencing requirements, to be in line with current security fencing ordinance requirements.
Any other potential changes on the working document will likely come following input from Sluggett.
“I think we are where we are until we hear back on that,” Dolphin said.
However, the other potential portal for review could be from a township planner.
Earlier this month, the Township Board tabled a vote to hire Mark Eidelson of Okemos-based Landplan Inc. to serve as the township’s planner, to guide the Planning Commission through both the WECS ordinance and a revision of the township’s Master Plan, until February.
However, opinions among the commission were split on whether a planner is needed at this point.
“If we’re going to have a planner assist us, why not have that first, before sending it to an attorney?” Dolphin asked. “If the board makes that decision, to bring in a planner, then we would be premature to go to our attorney. I think we’d want to see what the planner has to say about it (first). I just feel we’re in a spot right now where it’s out of our hands.”
“That’s not true,” Hemmes responded. “They hire the planner, the board can, but it’s up to this (commission) to determine how that planner is used. This (commission) has a responsibility to design the goals of the township and implement them. I think this document is fine. I think it’s going to be an expensive waste of time to bring a planner in and start all over again. I think we’re better off having the attorney go through it, look for problems and suggestions and move forward with it.”
“I think we need to wait until the board (makes a decision)” Shearer suggested.
With the board’s next meeting on Feb. 9, the commissioners reached a consensus not to make an official decision on what to do with the draft ordinance until after the board potentially hires a planner and provides additional input.
In opening up the floor to public comment, several expressed their thoughts on the subject of bringing in a planner.
“We’re looking at minimally spending $5,000 to $6,000 on a planner when… you’ve all said it (draft ordinance) is pretty good. It covers everything,” Township resident Richelle Lentz said. “Even when you are done, it is going to have to go to your planner, so you are essentially double dipping, sending it to the attorney anyway … It seems like it’s a little ahead of the game to hire a planner now.
“Your attorney has already made some really good comments … So my thought is, get his opinion. If you are close, then you’re close, versus six more months of meetings with a planner,” she continued. “I think everyone here can agree we’re all kind of sick of talking about wind. I think the sooner you can get by that, the happier we’ll all be.”
Montcalm Township resident Pam Hemmes said with Sidney Township having already passed a WECS ordinance and Pine Township currently finalizing its own ordinance, the commission should remain focused on passing a similar ordinance to those townships.
“They are similar ordinances, and we’d fit right into that group, I think, with this draft that we are working on here,” she said. “I’m just pointing that out. It’s always good to know what your neighbors are doing.”
In addition to suggesting the commission remove language in the draft ordinance stating “in the township,” to protect properties in neighboring townships, Sidney Township resident Robert Scott said he felt a planner was not necessary while thanking the commissioners for their work on the ordinance thus far.
“They (planner) have no background history to be able to tell you what is legal or not, but I know Jeff Sluggett, and he can do a fine job for you,” he said. “It’s going to be double of your time if you have both of them do it. And thank you for the work you are doing on this. I think you’re doing a great job. I don’t agree with everything you’ve done, but it’s pretty good. I think you’ve done a good job of protecting your citizens.”
[rest of article available at source]
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