WINFIELD TOWNSHIP – The Winfield Township Planning Commission on Thursday voted 8-1 to recommend approval of a wind energy ordinance, which will almost certainly go to a voter referendum.
Chairman Chris Rader and members John Black, Ken Fisk, Ben Gordon, George Hubbard, Kenny Jones, Jake Newman and Dale Ulrich all voted to recommend the ordinance to the township board, while Ken Kool cast the lone dissenting vote at the end of a chaotic meeting three-hour meeting. The Montcalm County Planning Commission will review the ordinance and provide feedback before it goes to the township board for a vote.
The proposed ordinance doesn’t have a turbine height limit, something multiple residents have voiced concern over. In perhaps the most telling moment of the evening, an effort made by Kool to reach a compromise by setting at least a 650-foot height limit failed in a 4-5 vote (Black, Kool, Jones and Newman voted “yes” while Fisk, Hubbard, Gordon, Rader and Ulrich voted “no”).
Gordon, Rader and Ulrich have all signed property leases with Apex Clean Energy, the wind developer looking to bring a wind energy project into Montcalm County.
Kool initially suggested a height limit of 500 feet, then 550 feet, then 600 feet and finally 650 feet, the latter of which Newman said he could support.
“We all took an oath to take on this position on the Planning Commission and part of that oath was to promise that we were going to do it for the township and not for ourselves,” Kool said. “It doesn’t feel like all of us are really setting our personal desires aside and doing it for this township and doing it in a way that’s hearing everybody and balancing the pros and cons. This right now (the proposed ordinance) is at the extreme.”
“We’ve eliminated a third of the township already,” Rader responded (referring to how turbines theoretically can’t be built in one-third of the township).
“We have already done some compromising,” Hubbard said. “I guess I’m not sure that our job is to go back just to appease the people that’s here at these meetings. We’re supposed to write an ordinance that fits this community and this township – and not just the residents, but the township compared to the whole state of Michigan and where we have wind turbines and green (energy).”
“We don’t have a foot height limit. I don’t see where we can gain anything by that,” Ulrich said. “We have setbacks from everything. Why does that not regulate height? I don’t understand it.”
Kool noted the township’s overall zoning ordinance takes into consideration how things look, and turbines should be no different. He pointed out the ordinance limits the size of a fence in a front yard and doesn’t allow signs on top of buildings.
“There’s only one reason for that: Looks,” Kool said. “It’s not consistent to not address this with this ordinance. The same with a height. To just leave it to setback restrictions … it’s a bad idea. We are polarizing this community and it doesn’t have to be that way. I think the best ordinance is one where nobody is going to be happy. But the way it is now, it’s extreme.”
“I do still feel that the height, personally I think a requirement or maximum is important for the virtual aesthetics of it, but also it forces the engineering to become more efficient and get more with less,” Fisk agreed.
“The taller ones produce more power,” Rader responded. “If we have taller ones, we’re going to have less turbines. If we set a height limit, we might double or triple the turbines.”
“They’ll be less visible,” Kool noted.
“But then there might be more noise,” Rader responded.
Kool’s motion to set a turbine height limit at 650 feet failed, meaning the proposed ordinance still has no height limit.
Despite his comments in support of a height limit, Fisk voted against it. At March’s Planning Commission meeting, Fisk also spoke in support of a height limit, saying, “If we give them the sky’s the limit, they’re probably going to take it.”
Fisk did not return messages from the Daily News on Tuesday seeking clarification about his vote.
Also on Monday, planners voted 8-1 to change the sound language – increasing the sound limit from 45 decibels to 55 decibels (with the addition of Leq 10 minutes and ambient sound) for participating properties; and leaving the sound limit at 45 decibels from the exterior of habitable structures of non-participating properties (but with the addition of Leq 10 minutes and ambient sound). Kool cast the lone dissenting vote.
Planners also voted 5-4 to increase turbine setbacks from non-participating properties from 1.5 times a tip height from a habitable structure to two times a tip height from the property line (Black, Fisk, Jones, Kool and Newman voted “yes” while Gordon, Hubbard, Rader and Ulrich voted “no”).
Planners also voted unanimously to increase turbine setbacks at Winfield Lake and Krampe Lake from half a mile from the water’s edge to three-quarters of a mile from the water’s edge.
Planners also voted unanimously to change the wording of the environmental assessment section, which previously stated, “At the township’s request, an applicant shall submit an environmental assessment assessing the potential impact of a proposed wind energy facility on endangered species, eagles, birds, plants and/or other wildlife.” Planners voted to remove “at the township’s request” from the start of the sentence to make it a requirement for the applicant, and also removed “or” from “and/or.”
‘TO HELL WITH YOUR NEIGHBORS’
Multiple residents spoke during the public hearing, with those supporting a protective wind ordinance standing up repeatedly in a show of support for each speaker.
Julia Potratz, a former planning commissioner who was ousted in January, called the lack of a height limit “totally irresponsible,” noting that Winfield Township has a building height limit of 300 feet.
“So to have nothing for turbines is crazy, she said. “You could go with 300 feet or even 500 feet, that’s better than nothing. You’re just going to have nothing? No height limit?”
Kathy Kok, as she has repeatedly done in the past, voiced concern with the proposed half-mile setback from the water’s edge of Winfield Lake, where she lives (the half-mile setback was changed to three-quarters of a mile later in the meeting, but Kok and others want at least a mile setback from the property line, not the water’s edge).
“To hell with your neighbors,” Kathy summarized. “You guys aren’t representing any of us. You’re not listening. I for one will be out getting petitions for a referendum. I will be the first one signing up to get petitions and names. I’ll take a week’s vacation to go knock on every door in this township to make sure they understand what it is we’re doing. We are planning to referendum whatever garbage you put out there.”
Township resident Heidi Eves shared with emotion how she was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall and has undergone three surgeries so far. She was present at Monday’s meeting wearing a pump “because this is important to me.”
“I do not appreciate it when my neighbors, who stand to make money off of things that they are going to make decisions on, on a board that I helped vote in,” Eves declared. “You guys are voting for me. You’re making decisions for me. And I voted for you (through the township board which appoints the Planning Commission). And I don’t appreciate it that you are making me come here after having a bilateral mastectomy to state an opinion because you will not listen – time after time after time.”
Winfield Township Board Trustee Steve Cole voiced two concerns with the ordinance: No height restriction and the 1.1 mile setback from a road. The Planning Commission didn’t vote to change either item, meaning Cole is likely a “no” vote when the ordinance reaches the township board.
The township board is next scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. on Thursday (although once again the meeting time is incorrectly listed at 10:30 a.m. on the township website).
‘THANK YOU FOR THE CLOWN SHOW’
Monday’s meeting was peppered with repeated interruptions from audience members who didn’t believe planners were listening to them.
Montcalm County Sheriff’s Deputy Ethan Berry was present and at one point Rader asked him to escort out Joe Hansen of Sidney Township for repeatedly interrupting (something Hansen has become infamous for at local meetings).
“You can go back to Sidney Township,” Rader told Hansen.
“I can go wherever I want,” Hansen retorted.
Rader asked the deputy a second time to remove Hansen. The deputy didn’t do this but did walk over to stand near Hansen.
Later on, during the turbine height discussion, Potratz interjected with some thoughts from the audience. Rader responded by telling her to leave.
Kathy Kok’s husband Tom Kok interjected, “Chill out!” to which Rader told him to leave too.
“You’re not God, Chris,” Tom responded.
Rader asked the sheriff’s deputy to remove Tom from the meeting. The deputy instead walked over and spoke quietly with Rader as attorney Kyle O’Meara tried to remind the audience of the meeting process and asked them to be respectful. Jeremy Kwekel of Cato Township interrupted the attorney even as he was speaking. Many audience members began leaving the meeting at this point.
“Thank you for the clown show, Chris,” Tom yelled as he walked out.
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