More than 50 people spoke about proposed wind energy ordinance changes at the Isabella County Planning Commission meeting Thursday night during a heated three-hour public comment session that filled the room and packed the hallway outside.
Commissioners – along with as many as 200 attendees – listened as, one-by-one, concerned citizens shared their thoughts, fears and hopes regarding wind energy farms in the county.
Planners are considering whether to recommend six changes to an ordinance already amended last year.
Two of the proposed amendments would change wind turbine setback requirements from property lines and homes while a third changes maximum turbine noise levels at night.
Three other proposals involve additional requirements for wind farm owners, including a post-construction sound study, application to the FAA to use radar detecting systems that could reduce light pollution and a requirement to provide detailed post-construction geographical data on a wind farm itself.
Opinion was split evenly among those who spoke, and whether the speaker asked for stricter regulations or urged the commission to keep the ordinance as-is, those on all sides often shared similar concerns.
Several agreed it is the responsibility of the community now to protect and preserve for future generations.
Dozens of speakers from both sides also felt that property owners should had the right to do what they want on their own property.
How to get there is the question at the center of what has turned into an emotional divide among neighbors in communities where Apex Clean Energy is gathering lease agreements, to the tune of nearly 44,000 acres so far, for what could be a 200-turbine wind farm in northeast Isabella County.
Related: Apex offers more details on proposed project
Often as people finished their three minute allotted speaking time, one half of the room and the hallway outside would clap in support, and more than few times the opposing side would jeer.
Farmers and other property owners as well as union labor workers, economic development experts, township politicians and representatives from Apex encouraged planning commissioners to stick with setbacks and noise levels already included in the ordinance.
“I’m a farmer. I worked all my life to own some land. Someone came to my house with an offer, we reached an agreement and I’m ready to go,” said Tom Swindlehurst. “I’m trying to make a living... let’s move on. Nobody is every going to be 100 percent satisfied.”
Several other property owners from around rural Isabella County noted that as farmers, they’ve always earned income from their land and pointed out that additional money could help to preserve the beauty of family farms.
Fourth generation dairy farmer Abe Pasch, of Nottawa Township, was one of many in support of the standing ordinance who took it upon himself to visit neighboring wind farms in Gratiot County to investigate his own concerns before leasing his land to Apex.
“I bet when all the power poles went in, it was very controversial in its day,” he said, agreeing with others who believe the requests to increase setback requirements might be a veiled attempt to destroy the feasibility of a wind farm in the county.
“It’s a desire to shut down the entire project,” Pasch said.
Other land owners agreed.
“I have my rights too, and change could hinder this project,” one man pointed out. “It can really help everyone in the county.”
Several speakers – most property owners though a few were anti-wind energy players from other communities – asked planning commissioners to recommend stricter setbacks and noise regulations and insisted they are not against wind energy; they want to ensure proper stewardship of land and public safety.
“My property value will be affected by having a turbine literally in my back yard,” said Mindy Brown of Rosebush. “I live in a quiet rural area... this is tearing the community apart.”
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A common request among those in support of increased regulations was a set back of 1,640 feet from a non-leased property line to a turbine; the current ordinance provides a set back distance from the line equal to the height of a turbine, and two times that height or 1,000 feet from a home.
“The bare minimum should be 1,640,” said Corey Bourland of Rosebush. “I want to hear nature.”
Some residents asked for a public vote or a moratorium on the ordinance entirely.
Fear of unknown and sometimes unfounded health affects – illness from shadow flickers for example – or concerns about public safety issues like ice throw, fires or turbines falling apart, were countered by others who said they support science-based engineering and were happy to see clean energy efforts.
“You are part of the mitigation of a climate crisis,” Gareth d’Haillecourt of Wise Township told commissioners. “Your courage will be viewed in the future with great pride.”
Mike Ware of Mt. Pleasant shared that while he doesn’t have “skin in the game,” because he doesn’t’ own property in the wind farm proposal footprint, he supports what he called “future benefits” of alternative energy.
“I see through the anti-wind component. It’s a thinly veiled attempt to torpedo,” he said. “The future belongs to the efficient.”
Hurt feelings – in particular sadness over the animosity between neighbors and community members – were on the minds of many speakers as well.
“It saddens me that the clapping we’re hearing is a division. I’d like to see us bringing it together,” said John Derby of Rosebush. “A few stricter setbacks from the property line and address the night noise. I’m all for my neighbors having turbines.”
After hearing several dozen opinions, planning commissioners addressed the six possible board of commissioner recommendations one at a time.
They ultimately deciding not to recommend changes on setbacks or noise levels already in the ordinance but supported the three new ordinance items.
The recommendations will move forward to the county commission for consideration.
Among the commissioners’ actions on items:
1. Change the current 1:1 setback from a nonparticipating property line to a 1:1.5 setback for turbines
- Action: recommend no change to the ordinance
- Six commissioners voted not to recommend a change to this setback, while two voted to recommend greater setbacks.
- “It’s a tough issue. It’s a balancing issue. Everyone said something truthfully,” Jim Horton said after making a motion not to recommend the proposed change.
2. Increase the current setback for a turbine from an occupied building to two times the height or 1,200 feet
- Action: A tie vote left the motion in a stalemate, mean that the planning commission has no recommended change to the ordinance
- Commissioners voted three times on this item, once changing the wording of the motion; two additional votes ended in a tie
- Phillip Vogel, Bob Campbell, Kelly Bean and Horton voted not to recommend a change to the current ordinance; Tim O’Neil, Jeremy Murphy, Ann Silker and Nathan Rogers supported recommending larger setbacks to an occupied building.
3. Allow a lower wind turbine maximum noise level of 30 decibels during nighttime hours
- Action: Commissioners voted 7 to 1 against the recommendation, with Rogers casting the dissenting vote
- Rogers shared that he has relatives that live near a turbine, and the noise is loud enough to require the television be turned up at times.
“It’s significant at my aunt’s house,” he said. “Respecting the night time noise levels seems like a natural fit.”
4. Require a post-construction sound study of any future wind farm developments
- Action: unanimous support to recommend to the county board of commissioners the addition of a sound study requirement in the wind ordinance
5. Require wind farm developers to ask the FAA to consider allowing nighttime lights that use radar detection to turn on only when aircraft is nearby, reducing light pollution.
- Action: Commissioners voted 7 to 1 in support of the recommendation, with Horton casting the dissenting vote
- Horton expressed safety concerns with low flying agricultural planes, aircraft that lose radar and possibly wildlife considerations.
6. Require a post-construction geographical data report from any possible wind farm in the county
- Action: Commissioners voted unanimously to recommend the report be added to the ordinance.