The Winfield Township Planning Commission split on wind turbine setbacks at its meeting last Monday night, with only five of the commission’s nine-member board actually casting votes – three more refrained from voting, while a fourth member was absent.
Planning Commissioner Ken Kool made a motion to make turbine setbacks two times a turbine’s tip height from nonparticipating properties, which was seconded by Ken Fisk. The township’s current draft wind ordinance lists turbine setbacks at 1.5 times a turbine’s tip height from non-participating properties and two times a tip height from a non-participating dwelling.
When the vote on Kool’s motion was taken, it was not a roll call vote, making it difficult to tell how each person voted. Fisk and Kool cast the only “yes” votes while Ben Gordon, George Hubbard and Dale Ulrich could be heard voting “no” which meant the vote failed 2-3.
Multiple audience members requested a roll call vote to clarify, to which Chairman Chris Rader responded, “A roll call vote isn’t up to the audience, it’s up to the people up front here.”
According to the Michigan Open Meetings Act handbook issued by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, “There is no bright-line rule for conducting a roll call vote. We suggest some rules of thumb. When a voice vote reveals a divided vote on the board (i.e., more than one no vote), a roll call vote should be conducted to remove doubt about the vote’s count. When the board is acting on matters of significance, such as contracts of substantial size or decisions that will have multi-year impacts, a roll call vote is the best choice.”
The township’s attorney, Kyle O’Meara, was present at Monday’s meeting but did not offer any direction to the Planning Commission regarding taking a roll call vote.
The Daily News asked for a vote tally amid the confusion during the meeting, to which Fisk responded, “We had two for, six against.”
However, Rader did not audibly vote, and neither did Kenny Jones and Jake Newman, both of whom were attending their first meeting as newly appointed planning commissioners. Meanwhile, John Black, who is also a trustee on the Winfield Township Board, was absent from the meeting.
After the meeting, the Daily News asked Rader, Jones and Newman to clarify their votes.
Rader said he did not cast a vote because it was not a tie; however, Rader had earlier in the same meeting voted “yes” to adding a conflict of interest amendment to the Planning Commission’s bylaws – and that vote was not even close to being a tie (see below). Rader told the Daily News that if he had cast a vote regarding setbacks, he would have voted “no” to Kool’s motion.
According to the Open Meetings Act handbook under “chairperson voting”: “Perhaps as a spillover from the well-known constitutional rule that the vice president can only vote to break a tie in the United States Senate or that a legislative presiding officer usually refrains from voting unless his or her vote affects the result, some believe that a board’s presiding officer (usually the chairperson) can only vote to break a tie. However, absent a contrary controlling provision, all board members may vote on any matter coming before a board.”
When the Daily News asked Jones and Newman to clarify their votes, both men declined to comment. When pressed by the newspaper – which pointed out that all votes are public in a public meeting and that it’s the men’s job to vote as planning commissioners – Newman continued to decline to specify how he voted. He did finally say that he didn’t abstain from voting (although he did not audibly cast a vote), nor did he contest what Fisk said (that six people voted against the motion).
Jones finally said that he didn’t cast a vote at all in the matter.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The Planning Commission previously went into a closed session to discuss conflict of interest with their attorney O’Meara at their meeting last November, then voted to table the topic.
At Monday’s meeting, at the recommendation of O’Meara, the Planning Commission voted 7-1 to approve a bylaw amendment adding a “rule of necessity,” which would allow conflicted planning commissioners to deliberate and vote on any topic if their recusal would prevent a quorum of the meeting. Kool cast the lone opposing vote.
Rader signed a November 2019 letter bearing Apex Clean Energy’s logo in support of wind turbines in Montcalm County. That letter was also signed by Montcalm Township Planning Commission Chairman Richard Karnatz and Paul Olson of Douglass Township, who was recently appointed to his township’s Planning Commission.
Although both Karnatz and Olson have recused themselves from wind-related discussions in their respective townships, Rader has not. Douglass, Montcalm and Winfield townships are all receiving differing advice from their hired law firms regarding conflict of interest (Mika Meyers in Douglass, Bloom Sluggett in Montcalm and Fahey Schultz Burzych Rhodes in Winfield).
WIND TURBINE MAPS
Apex Clean Energy, which is working to build industrial wind turbines in Montcalm County, provided the Winfield Township Planning Commission with a set of maps for Monday’s meeting, after the Winfield Township Board voted earlier this month to ask Apex to do so.
The maps – which are hypothetical only – show a variety of turbine setback possibilities in the township. One set of maps featured the GE 127 2.82 MW model turbine at a height of 499 feet, while the other sets of maps featured the Vestas V162 5.6 MW model turbine at a height of 676 feet. (See links to maps below)
The first set of maps show a variety of potential turbine setbacks, the second set of maps removes everything but the green buildable areas and the third set of maps add the township’s existing zoning map.
The maps are based on a hypothetical scenario that everyone with more than 20 acres in the township would be participating in Apex’s proposed project and anyone with less than 20 acres would not be participating (however, according to Apex officials, anyone who owns any amount of property and lives within the project boundary can participate).
Areas ruled out for turbines on the hypothetical maps included a large area north of M-46 to Yankee Road, due to house density and a natural gas line running through that area, areas near Indian Lake and Winfield Lake, and the northeast corner of the township due to proximity to the Lakeview Airport in neighboring Cato Township.
Some planning commissioners wondered aloud what it meant when certain areas on Apex’s maps were marked “nonparticipating” (but not necessarily “nonbuildable”). Some green areas on the maps were marked “buildable” while other areas were marked “outside project boundary.”
The Daily News asked Apex officials to clarify this. According to Senior Project Manager Albert Jongewaard and Public Engagement Manager Brian O’Shea, they are still in the middle of figuring out their proposed project design for Montcalm County and they don’t have a final list of everyone who will be participating, so the maps are only hypothetical scenarios to help planning commissioners envision how a variety of setbacks might appear; and also, the maps don’t necessarily show some of the smaller parcels that have signed up.
“What we’ve said all along is anyone in the project area can sign up,” O’Shea said. “If you’re within half a mile where a turbine might be, you’re eligible to participate in the project. Essentially anything that’s not green (on the maps) would likely not be buildable.”
“Even without saying ‘half a mile,’ anyone who owns any amount of property and lives in the project area is eligible to participate,” Jongewaard added.
The Daily News asked if Apex could provide an estimate for how many turbines they are planning for Winfield Township based on their current knowledge.
“It’s all too premature for us to be talking about specific numbers of turbines for townships,” Jongewaard said.
The Daily News also asked for a timeline update about Apex’s proposed project. Jongewaard said it depends on still-pending township ordinances, as well as state and federal regulations and timelines, but he said Apex is still hoping to be operational in Montcalm County by sometime in 2024.
During Monday’s meeting, Rader estimated 10 to 12 turbines could be built in the township based on the Apex maps, while Hubbard estimated as few as seven or eight. However, Kool estimated up to 20 turbines could be built in the township based on the Apex maps.
“I can count a lot more than a dozen,” Kool said. “They had them packed in pretty close in the areas that they were in (in Beal City). I can count at least 20 on this map with a 676-foot tip height. I can see some areas where they would put three or four, at least. I was amazed at how close they put some of them together.”
Kool and Ulrich drove to Beal City last Friday to look at the Apex-installed turbines there and to speak with a variety of residents and businesses about the turbines.
“Mostly they said, ‘They’re fine, we get used to them, it’s no big deal.’ They said, ‘Well, there is the noise, but it really doesn’t bother us that much.’ I didn’t find anybody really that they bothered,” Kool said. “To me the big negative impact, which I think it is for most people, is the change in the horizon.”
Ulrich said along with multiple residents, they also visited a bank as well as Dr. Pol’s veterinary clinic to ask if the turbines had any negative effects on animals.
“The people there looked at us like they did not know what we are talking about,” said Ulrich with a chuckle.
Ulrich said a Beal City school board member told them the turbines more than doubled the area’s state-equalized value (SEV) and cut in half the taxpayer cost of the school’s last bond proposal.
“The objections we heard was you kind of got to get used to seeing them and we do get used to them after a while,” Ulrich said. “We let people talk, we didn’t do the talking.”
The Planning Commission also discussed adding a wind energy overlay area to the township, however, they didn’t make any decisions at Monday’s meeting.
The Planning Commission’s next meeting has not yet been scheduled.
The Winfield Township Board is next scheduled to meet at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 10.
During public comment, multiple residents spoke in support of a protective wind ordinance and asked other audience members present to stand if they agreed with what was being said during public comment. Repeatedly, the majority of those present stood and applauded as opinions were voiced during public comment about wind turbine setbacks, wind turbine height, making the draft wind ordinance available online to the public and other related comments.
Kathy Kok of Winfield Township went as far as to accuse Gordon, Newman, Rader and Ulrich of “malfeasance” in discussing a wind ordinance, as all four men and/or their family members have signed leases with Apex. Kok also said attorney O’Meara and the Fahey law firm have their own conflict of interest as that law firm has represented DTE Energy. Kok noted that Winfield Township Supervisor Phyllis Larson advocated for hiring the Fahey law firm – and Larson herself has signed with Apex as well.
[rest of article available at source]
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