Although Winfield Township’s solar ordinance is separate from the township’s pending — and hotly disputed — wind ordinance, one colors the other, especially in light of the controversy surrounding township officials who have signed personal property leases with Apex Clean Energy, the Virginia-based wind developer looking to bring a wind turbine project to multiple townships in Montcalm County.
WINFIELD TOWNSHIP – Tuesday’s solar energy ordinance referendum vote wasn’t a referendum on wind energy, but it might as well have been.
Winfield Township voters overwhelmingly shot down a recently approved solar ordinance, 457 “no” votes to 185 “yes” votes, or 71% to 29%.
Meanwhile, voters in Belvidere, Douglass and Maple Valley townships chose to elect candidates who support protective renewable energy ordinances on Tuesday (see below for a breakdown on those races).
Although Winfield Township’s solar ordinance is separate from the township’s pending – and hotly disputed – wind ordinance, one colors the other, especially in light of the controversy surrounding township officials who have signed personal property leases with Apex Clean Energy, the Virginia-based wind developer looking to bring a wind turbine project to multiple townships in Montcalm County.
Winfield Township Supervisor Phyllis Larson, Planning Commission Chairman Chris Rader and planning commissioners Ben Gordon and Dale Ulrich have all signed leases with Apex, leaving many residents questioning their ability to remain neutral while working on renewable energy ordinances. Larson, Clerk Colleen Stebbins and Trustee John Black are all facing a likely recall in November’s general election, related to their votes and actions regarding the township’s wind and solar ordinances alike.
John and Wendy Pepper of Winfield Township told the Daily News they both voted “no” to the solar ordinance.
“I don’t think it’s been thoroughly looked at enough,” John said. “And in this particular township, people need to be scrutinized because there’s people here that could be influenced heavily by the fact that they have contracts with the wind, which means what’s going on with the solar? I think we need to take a step back and really look at what’s going on first. If we’re going to do it and do it right, let’s take our time.”
“I’m just leery of the fact that there’s conflict of interest with some of the people on the township board who also have contracts with these corporations,” Wendy added.
“It sours it,” John agreed. “It’s like you can’t trust them.”
“We need to review everything thoroughly in order to protect everybody,” Wendy said.
The Winfield Township Board voted last November to approve the solar ordinance, which included wording referencing special land use inclusion of a “wind energy facility or wind energy conversion facility” on agricultural property, which was confusing as the township didn’t have a wind ordinance in place at the time. In response, township resident Tricia Korhorn filed a notice of intent that same month to referendum the solar ordinance.
Tuesday’s referendum result means the township does not have a solar ordinance; nor has the township board enacted a solar moratorium while the issue remains in dispute.
Some residents who voted Tuesday believed that shooting down the solar ordinance was the same thing as shooting down solar development in the township altogether, even though the solar ordinance regulates solar development in the township.
Angela Smith of Winfield Township voted “no” to the solar ordinance with her 4-year-old daughter Serenity beside her.
“I live on Indian Lake and I don’t want any of that crap around the house,” Smith said, referring to solar panels. “I know there’s already the solar field that’s not far from where we are (in Howard City).”
Smith said in her mind, solar development is tied up with wind development as well.
“I don’t want that close to home either,” she said. “I’m not too comfortable with a lot of the (renewable energy) stuff – after they’re done using it, you can’t recycle the stuff.”
Jennifer Bacigal of Winfield Township voted “no” to the solar ordinance as well.
“My concerns are just nature,” she said. “I think we need to keep our fields for planting.”
Meanwhile, Jennifer’s adult daughter, Sydney Bacigal, had a different opinion.
“I voted yeah,” Sydney said. “I just know we need renewable energy.”
The Winfield Township Board in June approved a wind ordinance, which is also headed to a referendum, likely on the November general election ballot. A recently approved solar ordinance in Belvedere Township and recently approved wind ordinances in Cato, Douglass and Maple Valley townships will likely all go to referendums on the November ballot too.
The four candidates who won four contested township board races in three townships Tuesday are all supporters of protective wind and solar ordinances.
Eric Tester, 63, a retired rural letter carrier, received 346 votes over incumbent Pat Althoff, 62, who received 123 votes in the Republican race for Douglass Township trustee – nearly 78% to 26%.
“A big thank you to the voters of Douglass Township,” Tester said. “Your votes and support are greatly appreciated. Your voices will be heard and your concerns will be respectfully addressed. I look forward to being your candidate on the November ballot.
“Thanks also to Pat Althoff for his service fulfilling the term he was appointed as trustee,” Tester added.
Althoff did not return a message seeking comment for this story.
Andi Knapp, 48, a self-employed massage therapist, received 281 votes over incumbent Cathy Benson, 58, a Sackett Transportation Services accountant, who received 183 votes in the race for Maple Valley Township clerk – about 60% to 40%.
In the race for Maple Valley Township trustee, Tim Thornhill, 49, a self-employed process engineer, received 254 votes over incumbent Ben Newell, 33, a dairy farmer, who received 205 votes – 55% to 45%.
“I am absolutely humbled and honored to know that the residents in Maple Valley Township are going to trust me to make sure that they are informed of everything that’s going on and to be representing them in local government,” an excited Knapp told the Daily News as she was driving home on Tuesday night after volunteering to help work at a Grand Rapids election.
Knapp said while the ongoing renewable energy debate played a role in Tuesday’s election results, she’s looking at multiple other issues she feels need to be corrected and improved.
“I’ve been coming up with other things that are seriously wrong in our township,” she said. “There’s no checks and balances between the clerk and the treasurer. We received a really bad audit. We have two and years of missing Planning Commission meeting minutes, 2017 into 2019, and that is when Mr. John Schwandt (the current township supervisor) was Planning Commission secretary.”
Benson, Newell and Thornhill did not return messages seeking comment for this story.
Tarin Minkel, 32, an engineer, received 209 votes (nearly 47%) to win a Republican three-way race for Belvidere Township trustee. Challengers Pat Stuller, 78, a current Planning Commission member, received 124 votes (nearly 28%) and incumbent Wayne Watts, 58, a retiree and current Planning Commission member, received 115 votes (nearly 26%).
“I’m excited to represent the people of Belvidere Township and I hope to make them proud for all the hard work that it took to get me elected,” Minkel said.
Minkel said she believes the renewal energy debate played a role in Tuesday’s election, but she’s looking at an even larger picture.
“I think the biggest thing that played a role is that the people in Montcalm County have realized that they are not being repressed by the people that they elected, so that is what today’s election represents,” Minkel said. “They wanted fair representation and they felt this was the only way they were going to get it. I think today was a big win for fair representation.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding