Toward the tip of Michigan’s Thumb, dozens of wind turbines dot the rural landscape – their blades catching the eye of passers-by as they slowly spin.
The region has some of the highest power generation potential based on megawatt hours in the state, and over the last several years, the sight has grown more common above M-46 as a host of energy companies sweep in with large commercial developments.
But turbines could make their way farther south in a matter of months to two Sanilac County townships, where one familiar Canadian utility developer has proposed erecting 50 over a large swath of acreage.
Dubbed “Riverbend Wind Energy,” the project from Liberty Power would envelope parts of neighboring Fremont and Speaker townships, following the company’s completion of another phase of turbine development earlier this year roughly 60 miles north in Huron County.
But despite all the progress, Michigan residents aren’t happy.
Changing zoning rules in both communities have received stark opposition from some residents, spurring multiple recall attempts and a referendum in Speaker.
Sanilac County Clerk Leslie Hilgendorf said the call for an election to recall Fremont Township Supervisor Jeff Furness, as well as Fremont Township Clerk Reta Gardner and Treasurer Patti Shinn was made in mid-April. But no one filed to challenge them in the time allotted afterward.
That means the three will appear without opponents on the ballot in the recall election in November, though write-in candidates can still challenge them.
Meanwhile, signature filings regarding the recall of Fremont Trustees Michael Noll and Karen Kovach were still pending as of last week.
Hilgendorf said signatures were also filed with her office on May 22 in separate petitions now pending to recall Speaker Township Clerk Dawn Cubitt, Trustees Charles Stanley and Tom Murray, and Treasurer Tracy Sheldon.
The referendum to amend Speaker zoning rules would address lighting system requirements, turbine height definition, sound pressure and decommissioning security measures.
With interest in both wind and solar power growing across the state, Fremont and Speaker are far from the only local governments grappling with how to accommodate renewable energy development – if at all.
“Obviously, there’s this pushback from a group from both townships, but the project’s moving forward,” Bill Maitland, supervisor of Speaker Township, said of Liberty’s effort. “They (have) signed up plenty of properties or leased plenty of properties. The pro-crowd is pretty silent, the anti-wind is pretty loud. I guess that would be the reaction. Essentially, they’re doing anything they can to disrupt the process.”
Why are some communities pressing pause?
Officials in Wales Township in nearby St. Clair County adopted an 18-month moratorium on both wind and solar developments last February.
Months earlier, residents packed meetings in response to a potential development from Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources.
Lease agreements with Wales property owners were already underway, and as of last November, plans included a 100-megawatt photovoltaic solar energy generating facility over 600 acres. In a statement at the end of May, NextEra spokesperson Alexis Jones said they remained “committed to developing in St. Clair County” if they’re able to move forward.
Wales Supervisor Liz Masters has been vocal against such a development, advocating for the preservation of the township’s existing role in agriculture instead.
She acknowledged a potential need to adopt zoning rules for solar and wind to ultimately keep local control and stave off the state stepping in – something also cited as a future fear by officials in southern Sanilac County.
For now, Masters said, the conversation has idled.
“It’s in the hands of the planning commission – and the public, of course – to fine-tune our ordinance of where we would allow certain renewables and the requirements upon them,” she said. “You can never get that ground back. Once you have the compaction and the topsoil (affected), you’ll never get that prime agriculture back. And that’s something solid that we’ve always contributed to.”
Of the six townships in rural Livingston County that’ve discussed large-scale utility solar, three have established a six-month moratorium and two others for one year.
In early March, Tyrone Township voted to establish its six-month moratorium. Since then, there’ve been two planning commission workshops. The Tyrone Township Planning Commission will meet again June 13.
“They’re working with our contract planner and they’re going to come up with some ordinance revisions and then they’ll send them to the township board for approval,” said Supervisor Mike Cunningham.
In Genoa Township, a six-month moratorium went into effect in late March, and the planning commission held a public hearing about a proposed solar ordinance in early May.
Brian Borden, a planning manager for firm LSL Planning, said he and staff would work on altering the existing ordinance language for residential, smaller, and solar appliance uses. But the main concern has been solar farms. Officials have suggested they be considered industrial uses, but planning commissioners want additional details on the types, size, and the amount of noise they generate.
Livingston’s Iosco Township passed a six-month moratorium, as well. That was in February – when there were no pending solar project applications – and since then, leaders have been working on making changes.
One-year extensions of existing moratoriums in Cohoctah and Conway townships were OK’d in February after Chicago-based Ranger Power announced plans to construct a 1,500-acre solar farm in 2022.
Although there were no active applications for solar or wind bids, a senior development manager for Ranger expressed disappointment to Conway officials on the move, recalling “meaningful progress” in drafting comprehensive solar rules.
Now, planning commissioners in Conway are slated to hold a public hearing on June 12 as they consider amending the township’s zoning ordinance to regulate solar systems. Under the proposed amendment, utility-scale operations would be allowed as a special land use in a newly created solar energy system overlay district – subject to setbacks, limitations, application requirements and more.
A hearing was set in Cohoctah Township for a similar effort, including an overlay district, special land use requirements and application procedures.
So far, the only community in Livingston County to approve a solar ordinance is Marion Township. Even Clinton Township, near Lansing, has announced a year-long moratorium for wind and solar.
Meanwhile, the Michigan Citizens for Protection of Farmland, with roots in Livingston County, is working on language for a ballot proposal that would ban large-scale solar farms in rural areas across the state altogether. The group’s original proposal was withdrawn in late April over a “lack of specificity,” according to reporting from MLive, but organizers plan to refile.
The group’s intention, organizers said, is not to render existing farms illegal, but to prevent future developments and protect farmland.
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