Douglass Township Planning Commission makes multiple changes to draft wind ordinance in series of split votes
The temperature in Douglass Township Hall on Wednesday evening was chilly, but the feelings emanating from some audience members were arguably just as cold.
The Douglass Township Planning Commission met for more than three and a half hours to continue discussing the draft wind energy ordinance. At the start of the meeting, Chairman Jack Jeppesen announced that the heater inside the Township Hall had broken earlier that day and hadn’t yet been fixed, hence the reason for the frosty temperatures within the building.
The evening marked the first meeting for newly appointed Planning Commissioners Becky Sowles, Tammy Sweeris and Paul Olson, the latter of whom was asked to recuse himself at the start of the wind discussion due to a conflict of interest. Olson previously signed a November 2019 letter bearing an Apex Clean Energy logo in support of Apex’s proposed wind turbine project for Montcalm County.
A number of split votes were held over the course of the meeting that changed some significant areas of the draft wind ordinance, including changing maximum turbine height to 500 feet, altering setbacks from bodies of water, increasing noise levels and more.
Before the wind conversation got underway, the Planning Commission organized itself for the new year.
Upon Jeppesen opening the floor for nominations, Olson nominated Jeppesen to remain in his current role, which was seconded by Sweeris. Commissioner Rick Baldwin nominated Commissioner Todd Wells for the position.
Wells, who has been on the Planning Commission for 19 years, commented on the situation upon receiving the nomination.
“I’ve watched all of you. I’ve listened to all your scenarios,” Wells told the audience. “I haven’t seen anybody that’s been violent or the need for police, but Jack thinks we need police presence here (at the meeting). I think we can be cordial and work with each other.
“Jack had his own outburst (with his) own family here. He allowed that to happen. He actually had to kick his own wife out of the room. I think that was unacceptable,” Wells continued (referring to a meeting last October). “The chairman of any board is an example of the rest of us. If the chairman does things that are not above board, that can make the rest of you upset.
“Last time, I challenged Jack (for the position) last year,” Wells noted. “Jack and the current secretary at that time (Doug Poulsen) decided to come up with an idea. Their idea was to question my attendance to this board of 19 years. They came up with a fictitious idea to say I missed over half the meetings over 19 years. When I later questioned (Poulsen) about where he got those facts, he said he got it from the other secretary. I questioned our office secretary where she got that information. She said she didn’t give that to Doug and that wasn’t correct information. Right after that, the next meeting, Doug decides to resign. I thought all of you should know that. You can check me on the facts.”
Wells’ statement was met with applause from some members of the audience.
With no other nominations for the position, the Planning Commission voted 4-2 for Jeppesen to remain as chairman. Commissioners Pat Althoff, Olson, Sweeris and Sowles voted for Jeppesen, while Wells and Baldwin voted for Wells.
Sweeris was nominated and unanimously selected as vice chairwoman and Sowles was nominated and unanimously selected as secretary. Both women were attending their first meeting as planning commissioners.
Township planner Paul LeBlanc of PLB Planning Group spoke about some changes recently made to the draft ordinance and the direction he felt the township might have to take from this point.
“One of the concerns, all along, is that we want to control wind turbines, but, from the township’s perspective, we don’t want to be exclusionary,” he said. “We can’t be exclusionary, based on the law. I wanted to make sure that, given these setback distances, there would still be areas where the WECS (wind energy conversion systems) could be located.”
LeBlanc proceeded to pass out a map of the township showing where turbines could be installed given current setbacks in the draft ordinance.
“There would be several areas within the township where WECS could conceivably be permitted within the setback limits we’ve identified. However, one of the changes made at the last meeting was to limit the tip height of the towers to 150 feet. In all my research, I’ve yet to find any commercial wind turbine at 150 feet,” he said. “Right now, the typical is about 400. There are many communities going up to 500 and even 600 feet. As I looked at that, I’m recommending we increase the height. Again, it’s not reasonable, it’s not even defensible to limit it to 150 feet.
“Having said that, four times the tip height of a 400-foot tower would be 1,600 feet,” he continued. “If you look at that map, it probably eliminates almost all of the areas (for turbines) except for some of the larger ones. I don’t believe four times tip height is a reasonable requirement. If you look at the list of ordinances that were researched I think by the public, the typical standard is 1.25 to 1.5 times the height.”
Conversations about setbacks spun off from there, as LeBlanc was recommending shorter setbacks around lakes and other bodies of water. Baldwin took an opposing stance, saying he wanted something that falls more in line with surrounding townships.
“Do you read any of our newspapers from the area?” Baldwin asked LeBlanc. “Sidney (Township) is 2.5 miles, Pine (Township) is passing one that’s 1.5 miles from any lakes or rivers. Another one is a mile. You’re saying 600 feet? He (LeBlanc) seems to be doing our job, throwing all these figures out there. This is what we were supposed to do.”
“We have the most revenue from our lakes,” Wells agreed. “You can’t do this to the people that are paying the most taxes.”
“The setbacks, whether it’s a half-mile or 600 feet, that’s a starting point,” LeBlanc responded.“That’s the minimum. You’re requiring noise studies, you’re requiring flicker studies. If they can’t meet the decibel limits at the non-participating property boundary, they’re going to have to set back further or do something different to meet those requirements.
Following more discussion, Baldwin motioned to increase turbine setbacks around lakes and rivers to 1.5 miles rather than 600 feet. His motion failed 2-3, with Baldwin and Wells voting “yes” and Althoff, Sweeris and Sowles voting “no.”
Looking for a compromise, Sowles made a motion to increase the setback limit around lakes to one mile and to leave river and wetland setbacks at 600 feet. Her motion passed 4-1, with Althoff voting “no.”
In regards to turbine tip height, LeBlanc re-iterated that most turbine height falls within the 400- to 600-foot range, although he said technology is constantly evolving and will likely continue to increase over the years. LeBlanc recommended the township go with a maximum 500-foot height.
“I only got one vote, but I think you’re way, way taller than our area can withstand,” Baldwin responded. “You know how you (previously) said, make sure they (citizens) don’t repeal this? You’re walking into an area where it’s going to be repealed (or put to a voter referendum).”
“Yep,” agreed a number of people in the audience.
Baldwin motioned to change the height to 350 feet, which failed 2-3, as he and Wells again voted “yes” and Althoff, Sweeris and Sowles voted “no.” Sowles made a motion for 500 feet, which passed 3-2. Althoff, Sweeris and Sowles voted “yes,” and Wells and Baldwin voted “no.”
The Planning Commission then voted 3-2 to change turbine setbacks from non-participating households from four times a turbine’s height to 1,500 feet following some debate about turbine models and turbine safety manuals. Wells, Sweeris and Sowles voted “yes,” while Baldwin and Althoff voted “no.”
The last major change involved noise levels for non-participating parcels. Wells initially motioned to leave the portion of the draft ordinance as written, but it failed 2-3 with Althoff, Sweeris and Sowles voting “no.”
“They (a wind developer) have to do a background study before they even submit this project about the existing conditions with nothing there,” Sweeris said. “They have a baseline for what’s there and then they overlay their modeling. With natural wind movement, occasional car traffic or whatever it is, 40 (decibels) is going to be hard for them to not exceed in their base study. What happens when their base study, before anything is in place, already exceeds this? Is that giving them a window in which they can say we have an unrealistic expectation when the existing conditions, without us, already exceeds this?”
With Mika Meyers attorney Ron Redick saying that statement would be correct, Sweeris motioned to increase the noise levels for non-participating parcels to 45 decibels during daytime and 40 decibels during nighttime. The motion passed 3-2, with Althoff, Sweeris and Sowles voting “yes” and Baldwin and Wells voting “no.”
The previous “Citizens Ordinance” which was discussed last year had set turbine sound limits at 45 dBa lmax or 55 dBC in the day and 35 dBa lmax or 45 dBC at night.
Much of the rest of the meeting was spent with commissioners asking questions about the draft ordinance to LeBlanc and Redick, with the vast majority of questions coming from Sweeris. At one point, Sweeris asked the attorney and the planner to include a provision within the ordinance stating that turbine applicants must hold a town hall meeting on their own accord with neighbors surrounding the proposed project. The meeting would be separate from any site plan review or public hearing; rather, the applicant would have to host the meeting, themselves, and report the findings back to the township. The suggestion, which commissioners agreed they’d like to see included in the next draft, received applause from a number of audience members.
The Planning Commission opened up to public comment shortly after the meeting passed the three-hour mark, at which point many people – the majority in favor of a more restrictive wind ordinance – spoke.
“Just remember there’s one provision of the statute dealing with exclusionary zoning that says you can defend a claim of exclusionary zoning if there’s no location in the township appropriate for this use,” Robert Scott of Sidney Township said. “It may be because of the lakes, rivers and other natural features in the township that there is no appropriate place for these industrial-grade wind turbines in your township. You can do that. It’s up to you, but you can do that.
“I think it would be very helpful to people who want to show up to these meetings if you get the next draft of the ordinance on your website,” Scott added. “The one on the website is several versions old. It’s very hard to follow what you’re doing without having a copy of the draft in front of us.”
Linda Reynolds of Douglass Township asked why Jeppesen hadn’t voted on any of the matters during the meeting.
“I just vote for ties,” Jeppesen answered. “I don’t have to vote.”
Eric Tester of Douglass Township inquired why the township hadn’t sent out a survey regarding the topic of wind energy.
“We’re doing it a lot different than other townships,” he said. “They’re looking at their surveys and getting feedback from the people. You just voted 500-foot turbines (which can be located) 600 feet away from our designated river. I don’t think many people in this township think it’s a good idea to stick these that close to our designated river.”
Kevin Murphy of Winfield Township called out Redick and LeBlanc on some of the recommendations made to the Planning Commission.
“You (LeBlanc) almost sound like you’re in Apex’s back pocket,” he began before Jeppesen told him his comments needed to be addressed to commissioners. “I strongly believe that Paul, your planner, is planning a lot of things for his own future, not for our future … I think you should look at another planner, personally.”
Comments from Jack Jeppesen’s wife, Kellie Jeppesen, accused some audience members of discretely “bashing” Sweeris during the meeting.
“They’re already doing the whole patting your back, but they’re ready to drive a knife into it whenever you make a mistake,” Kellie said, which was met with disdain and groans from many present.
Kellie was later interrupted when speaking on a different point, causing Jack to interject.
“She’s talking. You can leave,” said Jack angrily to Melissa Bannen of Douglass Township, who had already spoken during public comment. “You can sit there and be quiet, or you can leave.”
Kathy Craig of Douglass Township touched on the changes made to the draft ordinance during the meeting.
“Your duty is to listen to the majority of the people and protect the township,” she said. “You know that the people do not want the setbacks you came up with, the height you came up with or the noise you came up with. You know that. You’ve heard people say that multiple times. You didn’t listen and take into account what the majority of people in this township want.”
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