“Yes, we have represented townships across the state against alternative energy companies in many different types of litigation and that’s why I think we get the reputation that we do, but we also represent communities that have more permissive ordinances as well,” [township attorney Leslie] Abdoo added. “I think it’s not fair to say that we as a law firm have one track of mind when it comes to these types of projects.” “I think we risk the possibility of legal litigation either way,” Drews noted. As the meeting concluded, audience members seemed unsure how to react to the new ordinance, as it includes language to like and dislike on both sides of the wind argument.
PINE TOWNSHIP – Halfway into Thursday evening’s special joint meeting of the Pine Township Board and the Planning Commission, it appeared as if wind energy ordinance work might continue into the summer.
But by the end of the three and a half-hour meeting – and after nearly a year and a half of work, research and debate – the township board voted unanimously to approve an updated wind ordinance, thanks in part to the focused efforts made by Treasurer Kristen Diehl, who made multiple amendments to her motion to approve the Planning Commission’s recommended wind ordinance to get Supervisor Bill Drews, Marla Sprague and Trustee Randy Robson all on board (Trustee Tyler Nadeau sits on the Planning Commission and therefore already supported the proposed ordinance).
“I believe that the seven members of the Planning Commission have done their diligence, their research and put together what they thought was the best option for this community as they were charged to do,” Diehl said. “We the board, appointed them, we trusted them to do this.”
Those amendments, which are now part of the newly approved ordinance, include:
• Increasing the height limit for commercial turbines from the previously proposed 350 feet to 450 feet, with setbacks remaining at three times a turbine’s tip height (which would be 1,350 feet for a 450-foot turbine).
• Decreasing the height limit for private turbines from 300 feet back to 60 feet (which is how it was listed in the township’s original wind ordinance).
• Decreasing turbine setbacks from the nearest body of water from 1.5 miles to 1 mile, or whatever is required by the state of Michigan – whichever distance is greater.
• Decreasing underground lines depth requirements from 10 feet to 7 feet below grade.
• Deleted a requirement stating the township must mail notice of a public hearing on any proposed amendments to this ordinance to each property owner in the township.
• Changed wording in the complaint resolution process to state that instead of “the township will investigate each complaint” that the zoning administrator and two Planning Commission members as appointed by the township board will investigate complaints.
The township board voted 5-0 amend the wind ordinance after a very lengthy discussion. Drews appeared to vote “yes” reluctantly as he continued to express concerns with the ordinance’s definition of “body of water.”
“I like it,” Sprague said of the new ordinance. “It isn’t going to be perfect.”
Township attorney Leslie Abdoo of the Foster Swift law firm was present Thursday, and Drews directed a pointed question to her before the township board voted.
“Your firm has a reputation of writing restrictive ordinances,” Drews told Abdoo. “It’s out there. It’s hard to deny. You’re still here to represent us. And you still would consider that you would be happy to defend what we come up with?”
“Absolutely,” Abdoo responded. “I take my direction from the board as the legislative body. Whatever the board wants to do, as long as you’re aware of the legal risks associated with going one way or the other, that’s my responsibility to advise you of them. If the board wants to make changes to the ordinance to make it more permissive … I will help you through that process.
“Yes, we have represented townships across the state against alternative energy companies in many different types of litigation and that’s why I think we get the reputation that we do, but we also represent communities that have more permissive ordinances as well,” Abdoo added. “I think it’s not fair to say that we as a law firm have one track of mind when it comes to these types of projects.”
“I think we risk the possibility of legal litigation either way,” Drews noted.
As the meeting concluded, audience members seemed unsure how to react to the new ordinance, as it includes language to like and dislike on both sides of the wind argument.
LOTS OF QUESTIONS
Robson came to the meeting with a host of questions, including asking why private turbine height was increased from 60 feet to 300 feet, why a setback number of 1,750 feet was chosen, why the township must mail out notices of public hearings to all residents and who exactly is responsible for handling the complaint resolution process. By the end of the meeting, all of these items had been amended in the final version of the new ordinance.
Robson said with the ordinance as initially proposed by the Planning Commission, he doesn’t see how turbines could ever be built in Pine Township. He expressed concerns with the survey the township sent out last summer, noting that some of the questions weren’t worded well and the variety of responding answers were difficult to decipher. Two-thirds of the township didn’t even respond to the survey.
“That’s a large part of the voice that we didn’t hear from,” Robson said. “To blatantly say that two-thirds of the population in the township doesn’t want turbines, I don’t think is accurate. I think that most people don’t have an opinion one way or the other.”
“Everybody you’ve talked to is pro,” Planning Commissioner Chris Bell responded. “I’ve talked to way more people that do not want them here than do. Everything you said is all pro. Pro pro pro. It doesn’t make our property (value) go down? (Expletive.) There is nobody I know that would buy a house with a windmill across the road from it. Nobody.”
“I can give you some people who said ‘I wouldn’t mind one in my backyard,’” Drews returned. “My concern is … who was here advocating for that portion of our township that would like to be able to site a turbine?”
“All of us,” Planning Commissioner Jamie Gorby declared on behalf of her colleagues. “We didn’t try to disclude wind energy.”
“With a mile and a half setback from any body of water?” Drews pressed.
Sprague also questioned the 1.5 mile setback, suggesting a one-mile setback instead.
“A mile and a half is a long way, especially in a county where there is a lake every half mile – I mean, literally,” she said.
Sprague is from Gratiot County, so she’s used to seeing turbines – not that she’s necessarily in favor of them. She said the township needs to write its wind ordinance for any wind developer and not specifically for Apex Clean Energy.
“Everybody is putting Apex as the bad guy. I think they’re the bad guy too,” she admitted. “I wish they had never even heard of Montcalm County. I wish we’d never heard of green energy, but we have. We need to make this as safe for us as we can, but we need to be open for what is coming down the road.”
Sprague thought a 350-foot height limit was too restrictive, noting that taller turbines could mean more efficient turbines and thus less of them.
“I’m completely neutral on this,” she said. “I don’t care if I have a wind turbine across the road from me or not, because I’ve lived with them. You learn to live with them. We want these turbines to be as efficient as we can so we don’t have 1,000 of them in Montcalm County.”
Planning Commission Chairman Scott Millard noted that each turbine placement will require a special use permit and the details can be negotiated for each situation.
“This is just a starting point,” Millard said. “You can’t have numbers too low, you’d have nowhere to go.”
“Well, I didn’t read anywhere in here that it’s subject to negotiation,” Sprague responded.
“There’s a lot of things that we don’t know,” Planning Commissioner Dan Main pointed out. “We don’t know how a project like this would affect our community. We need to be on the conservative side. There’s certainly room for negotiation. Once they come, they’re here, and there’s nothing we can do.”
Robson was surprised that the topic of turbines was such a controversial one in Pine Township and throughout Montcalm County.
“I don’t have a problem looking at them and I wouldn’t have a problem living underneath them and I don’t think most people would,” he said. “I think if we put them in, we’re doing our part, we’re helping out a little bit. Our energy has to come from someplace. Turbines don’t have much of a footprint. They will generate some power and I personally think it’s a little bit that I can do for my granddaughter and her legacy. It’s very little sacrifice on our part. I’m for turbines, I’m for green energy.”
“I kind of look at this ordinance as an insurance policy where maybe we have the highest amount of premium and coverage and maybe we don’t need that much. But maybe we do,” Nadeau responded. “What we’re doing here is setting some gold standards. We can have variances, we will have special use permits that will be based on the locations where they are sited and every location is different. Maybe we need to compromise some things and hold tight to some things.”
Drews shared lengthy comments about his own research into the wind issue. Like Robson, Drews expressed concerns with the township’s survey, adding that he had some questions he wanted included on the survey, but he was “refused” by the survey committee. Drews said according to his math, of the people who did respond to the survey, 77% of them were fine with setbacks of less than 1,750 feet.
“So where did we arrive at 1,750 feet?” he asked.
“Most people don’t know how far that distance actually is,” Planning Commission Vice Chairman Gary Christensen responded. “They were just guessing at it.”
“I would agree with that,” Drews said. “There was so much we were asking people that they didn’t understand. We do know that there was outside influence in how they filled out that survey in some places too. I am concerned we are compromising our residents’ rights to appease those voices. When I look at the (Planning Commission’s proposed) amended ordinance tonight, it appears to me that it was designed to keep wind energy out. I believe there are areas in Pine Township where we can appropriately and responsibly site turbines. I also believe there are areas of Pine Township where it’s inappropriate to site turbines.”
Drews said he is concerned about climate change and noted that one of the township zoning ordinance’s stated goals is to promote safe wind energy systems and to reduce fossil fuel use.
“I would hope that we still have that goal,” he said. “Are we part of the problem or part of the solution? When this is all done, will it be about the idea of I just don’t want to see them? Or will it be about we’re contributing to something that we don’t want to see happen? You’ve got to stand for something.”
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