DECKERVILLE — Citizens in yet another township may get their say at the ballot box regarding windmills.
Approximately 100 people packed the Deckerville Community Center last Thursday evening, where the Marion Township Board of Trustees considered the proposal by Exelon Generation to expand its windmill district, and the planning commission considered the company’s site review application for 40 additional wind turbines.
After two hours of sometimes heated exchanges between audience members and township officials, the board of trustees approved the “overlay” or expanded district on a 4-1 vote, and the planning commission okayed the application on three yes votes and two abstentions.
Jon Block, one of two planning commission members opposed to the project, believes citizens are upset enough to demand a referendum.
“Absolutely,” Block told the News at the conclusion of the two back-to-back meetings, when asked if he expected a petition to place the issue on the ballot.
Exelon, which already has windmills in Delaware, Marion and Minden townships in Sanilac County, wants to expand with 68 new turbines – 40 in Marion and 28 in Bridgehampton Township.
There are currently a half dozen windmills in Marion that were constructed in 2012.
Exelon wants to begin construction in the spring, and put the new turbines on line in December.
Many of the citizens who spoke out Thursday weren’t necessarily against windmills. They were upset with the way the project was being handled by township officials, including accusations of conflict of interest and poor communication with the public about the project.
Two chief critics were Block and Teresa Stringer, who also sits on the planning commission.
“As a member of your planning commission I have attended meetings concerning the Michigan Wind 3 wind turbine project,” stated Block in a prepared statement read during the board meeting.
“During these meetings I began to feel as though the general public of our area was uniformed about this project and when I asked questions pertaining to that issue I was quickly reassured by fellow board members that all the legal public notice requirements had been met.
“Not satisfied with that response, I took it upon myself…to contact local residents…only to find out most people had no idea this project was even being considered. I found that very disturbing and dug a little deeper to find that the only people who were informed were involved in the project.”
Block said Exelon sent letters on Jan. 11 to people involved with the expansion, urging them to “express their desire for the project…while the people of this township who are not involved in the project were afford no such luxury, they were left to rely on the postings on the back page of a newspaper few people I spoke with ever saw. This leads to a very dangerous situation because for democracy to work it requires the participation of the people and if the people are uninformed the democratic system crumbles and when democracy crumbles you are left with tyranny.”
Block went on to allege “the blatant conflict of interest on the planning commission. Out of the five members three hold contracts pertaining to wind projects. These members should not only have abstained from voting on this wind project but should have avoided involving themselves in the discussion of this topic as public officials,” said Block.
“That exact conflict flows over to the township board as well and having anyone from the township board attend and speak at the planning commission meetings as they did is highly unethical and possibly illegal.”
The previous vote by the planning commission that Block alluded to in his statement was the original approval of the site review plan in the spring of 2015. Because of possible procedural errors at that time, the township opted to bring the site application back for another vote of the planning board on Jan. 20. “People of the audience you must understand that you are the government, you are the decision makers,” Block said. “You do not bend to the will of the board, the board bends to your will.
“To the people of the board it is your duty to do what this community asks of you. If you do not perform your duty ethically you would create a mis-justice of the people and the people in this room will use their right to referendum and overturn your decision.”
Block continued, “In order for this wind project to move forward in an appropriate and ethical fashion I propose you table the wind overlay zone expansion ordinance, allow the members of the planning commission in conflict to resign and appoint new members that are objective and capable of performing the will of the people without bias…”
Stringer also pointed out that lack of public awareness about the project. Stringer said when she brought this up to the planning commission, the response was “people don’t care…but (tonight) you’re proving them wrong.”
Stringer expressed concern that the zoning ordinance governing windmills was 10 years old, and should be updated to address issues as other townships with windmills have done.
“I’ve got a feeling in my gut,” said township resident Dan Blaine, “this is being pushed (for personal reasons by some officials).”
Township attorney Scott Radloff responded to the conflict of interest issue, saying, “I don’t believe we’ll have an issue with conflict of interest.”
Radloff also said the township had met legal requirements for public notices pertaining to the project. Landowner Jeff Tarzwell felt opposition to the project was coming from owners with “two or three acres that don’t want it…telling us (larger owners) what to do.”
The township board voted 4-1 to approve the Windmill 3 District.
The dissenting vote came from Trustee Karl Buhl.
“In good conscience I couldn’t vote yes,” Buhl said after the meeting, because there were too many questions “not answered for me.”
Township Supervisor Arnold McVittie and board members Debrah Williamson, Mark Roberts and Audrey Stolicker voted yes.
Exelon’s site plan passed the planning commission with yes votes by Chairman Dick McEachin, Tom Roberts and Vern Dumah, who was not at the meeting but participated by cell phone.
While opposed to the plan, Block and Stringer opted to abstain, after being cautioned by Radloff that members were required to vote yes if the project complied with zoning regulations. By voting no, the pair could have opened the township to a lawsuit, Radloff said.
“You could open it to litigation (by) not fulfilling your duty,” stated Rafloff.
If Marion citizens petition for a referendum on the windmill project, they would join a growing list.
Voters in Moore Township voted down their windmill ordinance during a special election last November, and referendums will be held in March in Argyle and Wheatland township.
Some citizens of Bridgehampton Township have raised the conflict of interest issue regarding their officials and the new windmill ordinance approved last year.