BAD AXE — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote to the county in October to say land area within three miles of the Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay shorelines needs to be protected from wind energy development.
Months later, planners gave the go-ahead to a developer with plans to put at least 20 wind turbines within two to three miles of Saginaw Bay.
On Tuesday, County Commissioner Ron Wruble questioned why a developer would ignore the federal agency’s directive.
“We did not ignore the Fish and Wildlife’s recommendation,” Geronimo Energy Project Manager David Shiflett told commissioners.
Then, a pause.
“We understand you — ” Wruble said.
“We’ve been in communication with Fish and Wildlife … that letter that was sent here was news to us,” Shiflett said. “There’s nothing in the Great Lakes siting guidelines that mentions three miles anywhere, and that’s why they’re guidelines. Do a word search. It is not in the guidelines whatsoever.”
“I can turn that back and say why did the overlay get approved within a half mile of the lakeshore?” he said. “Many of you people voted on it twice. We as a company chose to stay back with respect of that … to say we’re not placing anything any closer than two miles to the lakeshore.”
Geronimo plans 50 turbines for Winsor and McKinley townships — a project that has been approved by county planners and commissioners.
To avoid disturbing bird and bat migrations in the area, Geronimo said it worked with the Service to decide that the best approach is installing a box radar unit near turbines that looks into the sky to detect migrations and shuts down automatically if something is detected.
Jeffrey Gosse, regional energy coordinator for the Service, said Geronimo has met with the Service “a number of times.” But to say that Geronimo has “worked” with the agency would be a strong way to put it, he said.
“I don’t see that they’ve taken our concerns into account whatsoever,” Gosse said. “They’ve mentioned the concept of using a radar similar to what we’ve got, but it was talk, nothing in writing. I haven’t seen any adjustments they’ve made that would take (a three-mile buffer zone) into account.”
The three-mile recommendation is neither an official federal law nor a requirement of Huron County’s wind energy ordinance. But Gosse said the Service’s official position is that Geronimo does not go through with its project.
“They’re not breaking any laws when they build,” Gosse said. “Not until they start taking migratory birds or listed species.”
“It’s a recommendation; we don’t have any regulatory authority to say you can’t do that,” said Scott Hicks, field officer supervisor for the Service’s East Lansing office.
The Service says it has “learned a great deal about nocturnal migration” in four years of study at two testing sites in Huron County. Studies show birds and bats flying “well within the swept zone of a turbine through the sample period.” They’ve deemed it an important area for migrating birds and bats.
Gosse said most developers have respected the Service’s recommendation to not build within three miles of Great Lakes shorelines.
“If Geronimo builds there, I can’t see why others wouldn’t follow,” he said.
Hundreds of Winsor and McKinley landowners, however, support the project, having signed leases in 2011. Some say money from contracts would bring stability. But a three-mile shoreline setback would eliminate that potential, as turbines would be removed from the project. Both township supervisors also support the project.