2014-04-24 / Front Page

Heritage speaks up

Company seeking to work with residents, county board

MANISTIQUE – Traverse City-based Heritage Sustainable Energy is looking to gain the acceptance of area residents and insisting that any proposed wind farm development is still in the planning phases. The company has recently come under scrutiny by some Inwood Township residents speaking out against wind development.

The issue that has seemingly divided the Cooks area came to light last month, when the Schoolcraft County Planning Commission proposed to update section 508 of the county’s zoning ordinance. With this update, any person or company looking to install a wind turbine would have to comply with an extensive list of restrictions.

In the amended section 508, developers looking to create a wind turbine grid, or wind farm, must 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.

According to Rick Wilson, vice president of Heritage Sustainable Energy, the company has been working in the early stages of a potential wind farm in Inwood Township. This, he explained, means that the company has been actively leasing large agricultural lands – approximately 4,000 acres – and testing wind potential.

A meteorological test tower that has been up in the Cooks area for approximately 18 months, Wilson said, to analyze the wind energy data in that area.

The company, which owns and operates the Garden Wind Farm, as well as two others in downstate Missaukee and Osceola, and Huron counties, has the advantage of a transmission system near Cooks, Wilson explained.

“We do have some capacity available to us in the transmission system, going through our same point of interconnection as the Garden Wind Farm,” he said.

Despite being in the “planning and pre-development phases”, Wilson said the commission’s amended ordinance would likely be detrimental to the company’s plans if it is adopted by the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners.

“The planning commission did put forth some recommended changes to the county zoning ordinance relative to … utility scale wind energy development,” he said. “Those proposed changes … would … preclude any wind turbine placement, just about, almost anywhere in the whole county.”

Wilson said he and the rest of Heritage have been following the progress of the ordinance changes and have also expressed interest in working with the planning commission or the county board to address “real, factual issues”.

The older version of section 508 states no windmill or wind generators will be permitted in any zoning district, but also that the structures may be permitted if a variance by the Schoolcraft County Zoning Board of Appeals is granted.

Wilson said the original section 508 would have been a “challenge as well”, and that he appreciates the “guidance” of the amended ordinance, however, he feels more research and discussion is needed.

“Whether it (the amended ordinance) makes it more challenging or less challenging, it does help to get things in black and white,” he said. “It would be nice to do it with a factual evaluation of utility wind and what the ramifications are for the communities.”

When asked if the adoption of the ordinance would equate to Heritage walking away from the Inwood Township project, Wilson responded it would leave the company to potentially approach the Zoning Board of Appeals for turbine approval.

“I think there are some excellent resources for Schoolcraft County to take advantage of from a wind resource perspective,” he said. “We don’t have any definitive plan, at this time, in place.”

A Cooks-based Facebook page has sprung up in recent weeks, aptly named “SPARE (Schoolcraft Property-owners Against Rights Encroachments) Cooks from Windmills”. The page, which advocates against the development of any area wind farm, regularly posts about its position, noting in one post, “This content is censored to allow only our point of view. Wind zealots and other lunatics are free to start their own page expressing their opinion.”

The page also posts emails obtained from the county via a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails appear to be from a Heritage employee to Schoolcraft County Zoning Administrator Jake Rivard, with the employee supplying a map of proposed wind turbine placement in Inwood Township. The Heritage employee notes that the map is “very preliminary” and asks Rivard not to share it, as the company is still planning and studying for the project.

Using the two emails, the group alleges Heritage is attempting to keep its plans “quiet”.

According to Wilson, the company has not made an effort to keep the Inwood Township project a secret.

“We’re not secretive; people have my phone number, they have my email – they know where to get a hold of us if they have questions,” he said. “Things kind of move at different phases of activities – at different levels, but we never are … trying to hide anything.”

Wilson noted that the Garden project first began with a meteorological turbine around 2007 – nearly five years before the project was up and running.

“It doesn’t always take that long, but … it’s not uncommon,” he said. “Everything moves on a bunch of parallel pathways … it kind of moves forward and backward over time.”

Wilson also noted that since the company is a private, independent power-producing company, they must work to secure power purchase agreement with other companies before a project can commence.

In order to best explain the company’s position and answer any questions the public may have, Heritage will be available for a question and answer presentation at the county board meeting, preliminarily set for June 17. Wilson said he would be “more than happy” to answer questions, and that the company still has questions of their own about many things, including the “viability of the project”.

“We’d like to have community support for our projects,” he said. “We’d like some enthusiastic support for our projects … I think everybody needs to hear the facts behind that and we’re more than happy to present them.

This seems like a typical process to go through,” Wilson continued. “We hope it’s open and honest and a thoughtful procedure that people put forth and be careful of misinformation and rumor.”

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