MANISTIQUE –A controversial amendment to an ordinance addressing windmills was approved Tuesday by the Schoolcraft County Planning Commission. The decision was made among a room filled with concerned citizens, many of whom spoke out against the ordinance.
The amendment applies to sections 102 and 508 of the Schoolcraft County Zoning Ordinance. These sections were first adopted in 2009, and section 508 stated that no windmill or wind generators will be permitted in any zoning district. However, the section also states that the structures may be permitted if a variance by the Schoolcraft County Zoning Board of Appeals is granted.
Section 508 also stipulated that a site plan for windmills must meet certain requirements, including: a horizontal setback from all property lines and public roads of not less than the height of the structure, including blade tips; the limitation of noise created by windmill or wind generator to not more than 55 decibels on the “A” scale, as measured from the property line of the parcel; a structure height to be decided on a case-by-case basis by the zoning board of appeals; and the presence of a decommissioning plan to be implemented when the windmill site is no longer in use.
In total, the original section 508 included 19 requirements for those seeking to install windmills or wind generators. These requirements also specified that windmills not be installed in any location that may be detrimental to the general neighborhood character, as determined by the zoning board of appeals.
According to Schoolcraft County Zoning Administrator Jake Rivard, the past ordinance needed updating in order to protect all of the county’s residents.
“This right here (the new ordinance) is actually a step in a different direction,” he said. “To actually give a little bit of a structure to something that can come in here.”
He explained that the commission compiled the amended ordinance after conducting much research, as well as considering testimony and information provided by windmill manufacturers. The ordinance is meant to set up stipulations for individuals wishing to invest in a smaller turbine, as well as companies looking to create grid wind energy systems, Rivard noted.
“What has to happen there is it needs to come in front of the zoning board of appeals,” he said. “At that point … there will be a hearing for each individual wind turbine.
It’s not saying they can’t come here,” he continued. “This is strictly to provide placement – to keep as many people happy as possible.”
The rights of property owners looking to capitalize on any potential windmill farm were taken into consideration, Rivard explained, as well as the rights of any of those property owners’ neighbors.
“Are you going to put a wind turbine that’s 600 or 700 feet away from a house?” he said. “That’s not going to happen … that is what this (ordinance) is designed for.”
According to the amended section 508 of the ordinance, wind energy systems are more extensively defined, and wind energy systems are broken into three categories: on-site wind energy systems under 60 feet; on-site wind energy systems over 60 feet and wind site assessment systems; and grid wind energy systems. Wind energy systems under 60 are permitted without the necessity of an appeal to the zoning board of appeals if seven standards, including setbacks and height limits, are met.
On-site wind energy systems over 60 feet and wind site assessment systems are allowed by the ordinance if a variance is granted by the zoning board of appeals and a total of 18 standards are met. The most restricted of all the systems are grid wind energy systems, which require the installer to obtain a variance from the zoning board of appeals, meet 25 standards, and comply with a decommissioning unused or abandoned wind energy systems plan and be subject to penalties if any stipulations are violated.
Among the standards for grid systems are requirements that the systems be set back at least 3,960 feet (three-quarters of a mile) from all lot lines, high-water marks, public/private right-of-ways, easements, neighboring dwellings and businesses. The systems must also be set back 5,280 feet (one mile) from any scenic areas, parks, highways, and recreational areas. A third setback restriction of 2,640 feet (one-half of a mile) from any state or national forests is also stipulated by the amendment.
In contrast to the ambiguous height restriction of 2009, the amended section 508 states that the maximum height of a utility grid wind energy system is 200 feet. The newly revised section also states that the maximum sound pressure level is 35 decibels, as measured on the dB (A) scale, at the property lines of the site. Generated noises of the systems also cannot be greater than five decibels above the ambient noise at the site of any neighboring dwelling.
Among the 25 stipulations of the amended section are also restrictions on vibrations, shadow flicker, interference with commercial/ residential reception, landscaping, wildlife and visual impact, and signage and lighting.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Jean Anderson, of Cooks, spoke out against the proposed amendment. She explained that the turbines in the Garden Wind Farm, constructed and owned by Heritage Sustainable Energy, were made in Michigan, boosting its economy. Anderson also noted that the installation of another wind farm could help boost the local economy as well.
“Currently, the way it (the amended ordinance) stands, it looks like there could be nowhere in Schoolcraft County that this would work,” she said.
Anderson added that by adopting the amendments, the county may be engaging in exclusionary zoning, and opening itself up to a potential lawsuit.
The amendments to the wind energy system ordinance come on the heels of Heritage Sustainable Energy’s rumored interest in the Cooks area. This interest was confirmed during the meeting, when Rick Wilson, vice president of Heritage’s operations, said the company has been testing wind resources on property in Cooks for approximately 18 months.
“We are in the planning phase up there in Cooks,” he said. “We’ve got about 4,000 acres under lease – we’ve got a significant investment already.”
Wilson explained that the wind resource in Cooks is “favorable” and that he would be willing to work with the commission or the county to come up with an ordinance that the company would be able to work within.
“We’re not the only developer; we’re not asking for any favors, as Heritage, but the ordinance, as it is written now – it will probably not work anywhere in the county,” he said.
Richard Johnson, who owns property in the Cooks area, said the commission should encourage businesses to the area, especially those promoting renewable energy.
“By adopting these proposed amendments, you’re taking rights away from me, because I have a right to earn money off of that property,” he said. “You’re killing that project out there. I think it would be a huge mistake for the county to do that.”
John Saez, a Garden resident who leased his land to Heritage and currently has three windmills on his property, expressed his concern about the amended ordinance. He explained that while wind energy is not perfect, it is a better option than the United States continuing to rely on oil resources overseas and sending troops over to secure these resources.
“We can send our young men over there and they come back with limbs missing, arms missing, half their faces – because we don’t want an oil refinery in our backyard,” he said. “We don’t want anything to do with anything other than, ‘that’s their problem, not ours’.”
“Think about the future, think about the tomorrow,” he continued. “Think about our young men that are getting wasted (killed) every day over oil, and after oil, there will be water.”
Cooks resident Dave Robere said that the ordinance will prevent Heritage, a company that paid $433,217 worth of taxes last year, from coming to the area. He noted that the company spent $10 million in the construction of the Garden Wind Farm, created jobs, and employed local contractors.
Bill Anderson of Cooks said that with the commission’s amendment, it would no longer be feasible to place turbines anywhere in Schoolcraft County.
Garden resident Nicole Young stood during public comment to inform attendees of her own experience with the Garden Wind Farm. Although she did not opt to lease her land to Heritage, Young said she is still impacted by the farm, as her home sits near the middle of it.
“I have issues with noise – I don’t get to enjoy my property like I used to,” she said. “It’s not constant noise, but it is a fluctuating noise. Sometimes it’s very loud … sometimes it’s from the windmills that are a mile and a mile and a half away from my house.
I just want to commend you guys for being really careful to protect the people who don’t have an opportunity to make a lot of money off the windmills,” Young continued. “You’re there to protect the little people – the small landowners.”
Jim Ostlund, of Cooks, said the lifestyle created by living in the country would be significantly impacted by the creation of a wind farm.
“I don’t want a big monster in my back yard,” he said. “It’s too loud. I feel sorry for the people that didn’t sign up for a lease, aren’t benefiting from it, and have to live with it.
Peace and quiet, I think that’s a right,” he added.
Following Ostlund’s comments, another resident pointed out that people living near trains and churches with bells eventually become accustomed to the noise, as would anyone living near a windmill.
Al Grimm, a Schoolcraft County commissioner and Manistique resident, explained that he considers how future commissioners and residents will be impacted by any decision, including the approval of any wind farm. He suggested Heritage give an incentive for allowing the wind farm.
“I don’t know if Heritage contributes anything to the township just for the aggravation of these things, but I think it would be a nice gesture if they did,” he said. “Some kind of monetary deal that went to the township ... because every township, every city, every county in Upper Michigan is short on money, it would just be one way to pacify people a little bit.”
Planning Commission member Gary Demers said even though the amendments are restrictive, he feels like it is needed.
Brad Jones, the commission’s chairperson, said that Garden and Delta County had been taken by surprise by the creation of the wind farm, and that having the ordinance in place would be a good thing for Schoolcraft County. He noted that the ordinance would not stop the creation of any wind farm or installation of wind turbine, it would merely put it in the hands of the zoning board of appeals.
Jones also claimed that the audience members were the ones paying for the turbines, since the companies installing them are receiving tax subsidies from the federal government.
“There’s all the government subsidies that go into these turbines to put them up,” he said. “They offer you some money up front to get you to want to have wind energy.”
According to a report by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, “ on an inflationadjusted basis, the subsidies for “traditional” energy sources in their early days - coal, oil, gas and nuclear - far surpassed what we are spending on renewable energies today.” The report points out that while tax subsidies are more prominent for renewable energy projects, other industries have tax breaks worked into the system that have been in place so long, they go relatively unnoticed.
Jones, however, noted that wind turbines were an “eye sore” and not as efficient as fossil fuels. He also added that advancements have been made in fracking and, as natural gas prices go down, that option looks more “attractive”.
Saez countered Jones’ fracking comments, saying that the option was not any better, and potentially dangerous.
“You mean to tell me that you would be willing to trade off wind power for going underneath your earth and pounding away at that?” he said. “That would be a better way?”
The amended sections 102 and 508 were approved unanimously by the planning commission, and will now head to the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners for final approval. The board meets tonight at 7 p.m.