Wind power sets off revolt in Michigan's Thumb

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Huron County has been the main test lab for Michigan's expansion of wind power, but the experiment is setting off a revolt.

The area at the tip of Michigan's Thumb is home to more than 300 operating turbines — nearly half of all those generating electricity in the state. That's 11 wind farms with a footprint somewhere in the county, and several others in the pipeline that could push the total number of turbines to 1,000 and beyond in the area about 110 miles from Detroit.

But Huron County officials are reviewing a proposed moratorium on new turbines and will likely vote on the issue in the coming weeks. A stoppage would give elected officials a chance to review current zoning laws, which some critics say have not done enough to protect property owners.

It also would be a big change for what has been a welcoming home for power industry players like DTE Energy, Wolverine Power and Florida-based NextEra Energy.

Several small townships have expressed dissatisfaction with Huron County's turbine regulations in the last 20 months by passing tighter local zoning ordinances. In May 2013, tiny Paris Township enacted new restrictions on where turbines can be sited. Debate over those laws led to a referendum five months later when voters backed the new restrictions on setbacks and turbine height.

Lake Township followed in August by adopting its own ordinance that was more restrictive than the county's. And Meade Township is in the midst of a battle over the possibility of 45 new turbines from DTE Energy.

Some wind companies have worked to meet the rules changes in some of the county's townships, while at least one firm is resistant.

The fight over creating new rules for turbines can seem like a case of trying to lock the barn door after the horse has bolted.

"Absolutely, you could see it like that," said John Nugent, chairman of the Huron County Board of Commissioners. "But I would say only half the horses are out."

Nugent and his fellow board members are reassessing their approach to turbines after receiving complaints from some residents and hearing regrets from others who have easements with power companies.

Among those with a complaint is Rita Parsch, a Meade Township resident who has watched wind turbines creep to within three-quarters of a mile of her home. The turbines can often be heard grinding away — day and night — and produce an annoying flicker effect. At night, she can see 43 blinking red lights atop turbines from her kitchen window.

Turbines coming closer

She and her husband moved to their home 35 years ago but have seen their enjoyment of the property decrease with the expansion of wind turbines.

"This area is wooded — we appreciate the quiet and the wildlife," said the 60-year-old substitute teacher. "We thought this would be our forever place ..., but they've been building these turbines closer and closer and closer."

Parsch is now spearheading a petition drive in the township to put new zones open to turbines — zones previously approved by elected officials — before the voters.

Words like "flicker" weren't even in Huron County's vernacular when energy companies came calling several years ago, Nugent said. Many landowners jumped at the chance to earn money for allowing the companies to put turbines on their property. But things have changed.

"We have been welcoming in the sense that our ordinance was structured in a way that encouraged development with very little regard to abutting properties, aesthetics and the environment," he said. "Over time, more evidence and information has come forward (often through lawsuits) about the deficiencies in our ordinance — no sound or flicker protections. Setbacks have become a huge issue."

Huron County's current ordinance requires turbines to be 1,000 feet from residential buildings owned by the leasing landowner, and 1,320 feet from other residential buildings. In Lake Township, turbines must be placed a minimum of 1,700 feet from residences not owned by the participating landowner.

Changing views

Other issues involve shorelines and wildlife.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends turbines be sited no less than three miles from shorelines — a standard designed to protect migratory birds that follow Michigan's coasts as they travel north and south. Lake Township officials made the recommended distance part of their new zoning ordinance in 2014.

Two years before, voters turned down a chance to adopt Huron County's zoning ordinance, instead pushing for something even more restrictive. Lake Township Supervisor Valerie McCallum said many people have changed their view of turbines since they were introduced.

"When they first came here, people didn't think they were that bad; it wasn't that big of a deal and it was good for the environment," she said. "But I think with so many of them now, they're looking at what's happened here, and they don't like what they see."

Michigan utilities are required to produce at least 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of this year. DTE has made wind power and Huron County the focus of its renewable energy effort, and the utility is near its goal. One more wind project, targeted for Meade Township, will help the utility meet the state mandate and put it in position to maintain its renewable production for the next 15 years.

Dave Harwood, DTE's director of renewable energy, said the changes underway in Huron County and in its townships will likely have little impact since the power provider has already voluntarily complied with most of the zoning changes being considered.

One such change is the shoreline setback requirement of three miles. "That's something we actually support," Harwood said.

But company officials from Geronimo Energy's Apple Blossom Wind Project, which seeks to put nine turbines within three miles of Saginaw Bay, are leery of any moratoriums or zoning changes that might affect plans that have already been approved.

"I'm not going to speculate on how we would resolve these issues, legally or otherwise ...," said Tim Polz, Geronimo's vice president. "But if they applied, a future ordinance that would prohibit turbines within three miles ... that would be an issue for us."

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