TUSCOLA COUNTY ADVERTISER: Thumb’s war about wind has left some wounds

Caro, Mich. -- State Rep. Gary Glenn calls Caro “ground zero” in the battle about wind turbines in Michigan, and by the time he left a town-hall meeting on the topic at Caro High School, he had seen the casualties.

“I’m going to leave you with this – everywhere that wind turbines go, the social fabric of the community is destroyed. That is the common thread,” Jon Block, president of the Deckerville Community Schools Board of Education, told Glenn at the May 19 meeting, in the school cafeteria.

Many members of the audience of about 130 people at the meeting applauded the remark by Block, who also is an elected trustee in Marion Township in northeast Sanilac County. A press release from Glenn stated the meeting was expected to focus on future development of wind energy in the Thumb area.

Earlier in the meeting, Block said he’s “not anti-wind,” noting he has a wind turbine on his property. But he stressed that debate about wind turbines has taken a heavy personal toll.

“We’ve been drug through the mud – some of our lives have been ruined,” Block said. “You’re talking about people who have been destroyed because of this issue.”

Glenn asked Block to offer “very specific examples.”

“A fellow planning commissioner threatened to kill me last year,” Block said. “Is that pretty specific?”

State legislators voted last year to approve new legislation increasing the amount of state energy coming from renewable sources – such as wind and solar power – from the current standard of 10 percent to 15 percent by 2021.

Glenn, chairman of the House Energy Policy committee, voted against increasing the standard to 15 percent. DTE Energy announced plans last month for a dramatic increase in wind power as it tries to increase the percentage of its renewable energy provided to customers.

“I came here tonight opposed to the government mandating that 15 percent of our energy must be developed by renewable energy, and I came out of this meeting all the more opposed,” said Glenn, whose 98th district includes land in parts of Bay and Midland counties.

“What I learned here tonight is this is not just an economic issue, and not just a private property-rights issue, but an issue of social fabric,” Glenn said. “I’m going to communicate that back to my colleagues on the (House) Energy Committee in Lansing – about the social effects (of the wind-turbine debate), not just the economic effects.”

Late last year, Gov. Rick Snyder signed the law into effect that increases the renewable-energy standard to 15 percent.

“I wish the governor were here to see the effect on the social fabric of the community – not just the questions of what kind of energy are we going to have, or private-property rights, or the economic cost, but the social cost,” Glenn said after the town-hall meeting.

“I’d like to see this message, and this crowd, duplicated on the steps of the Capitol, or in the Capitol rotunda, and have that same school-board member communicate that same message to Gov. Snyder in Lansing,” Glenn said.

Should state tweak laws?

Scores of wind turbines have been built in recent years in Huron, Tuscola and Sanilac counties. Voters in all three counties on May 2 issued decisions that weren’t favorable to wind-turbine developers.

Opponents of wind turbines in Tuscola County claim DTE Energy plans to build 3,500 new turbines in Michigan – 50 turbines in 70 new townships.

Mike Pattullo, a resident of Tuscola County’s Ellington Township, told Glenn that state legislators need to pass conflict-of-interest rules preventing public officials from deciding issues or ordinances regarding energy development when those officials receive financial benefits from energy developers – such as leasing their land to the developers.

Pattullo also recommended approval of “transparency laws” requiring energy developers to publish in a newspaper the names of those landowners who have signed leases with energy developers, such as companies proposing wind turbines.

“Somehow, we have to put some pressure on these gigantic wind developers to use some ethics, some honor, when they’re dealing with these small communities,” Pattullo said. “They come into these little townships that have five people sitting on that township planning commission that have never decided anything more than where to put a pole barn, or how much gravel to put on a road.

“And now they’re being asked to do what? Basically, design an oil refinery – right down to the pipe size. They’re just going to go by whatever the wind developer, and their engineering company – who happens to work with them on every project – say.

“That’s the model, but that model, going forward, will be a disaster for 50 turbines per 70 townships.”

Norm Stephens, a resident of Tuscola County’s Almer Township, estimated that wind turbines have been built in about 30 townships in Michigan.

“From what I can find, actually, every one of those (townships) has some level of conflict of interest at the (township) board level, the planning commission level or on the zoning board of appeals,” Stephens told the audience.

“Is there anybody here that can tell me there’s some place in the state that has wind turbines where not one of those three areas has some type of conflict of interest, where somebody has a wind lease (with an energy developer)?”

No one in the audience gave an answer.

“Every one of those townships has conflict of interest – that’s really important, Gary,” Stephens told Glenn.

Ellington Township resident David Vollmar, however, told Glenn that opponents of wind energy have demonstated conflicts of interest in Tuscola County’s Almer and Ellington townships.

“You’ve been hearing a lot of lies here today,” Vollmar said. “Property lines on the zoning ordinance in Almer Township is (a wind turbine must be) 1,500 feet from a property line – that is the ordinance.”

Most incumbents on township boards of trustees in Almer and Ellington townships were replaced in the November 2016 election with members of an anti-wind group, the Ellington-Almer Township Concerned Citizens, according to Vollmar.

“That is conflict of interest – they belong to a group, an anti-wind group, and most of ’em’s here tonight,” Vollmar said.

Vollmar, who is a leaseholder with a wind developer proposing to build turbines in Ellington Township, said that in Ellington Township, four of the five current township board members belonged to the concerned citizens’ group prior to the November election that saw those four candidates win election.

“They all been ag’in windmills,” Vollmar said. “Now that is all conflict of interest. There is no ethics for them people whatsoever. None.”

Glenn then asked Vollmar a question.

“Will any of the members of this anti-wind organization who got elected make any money, depending on how they voted on an ordinance?” Glenn said.

“Who knows?” Vollmar replied, calling the four new members of the Ellington Township Board of Trustees elected in November of 2016 a “crooked board.”

Even ‘honorable men’ questioned

Keith Aeder, supervisor of Tuscola County’s Fairgrove Township, told Glenn of difficulties his township faced regarding wind turbine development.

“We had a planning commission that had conflicts – we recognized that right off the get-go,” Aeder said. “We tried to appoint alternates to our board to get around this issue and get these people out of this position. But it’s illegal – we can’t do that.

“We have no other option. … Either that or we kick them off this planning commission that they’ve served on for 15 or 20 or 30 years.”

Aeder referred to the planning commission members as “honorable men.”

“I can speak for my (township) board that I feel strongly that they were still looking out for the good of property owners – there are people that are trying to protect other people’s property rights,” Aeder said.

“We certainly appreciate the small landowners. I’m one of those small landowners. I personally don’t like the windmills, but at the same time, I feel like I have to try to protect everybody’s rights.”

Aeder urged Glenn to change state law to allow townships to respond to proposed turbine development when one or more township officials have a conflict of interest.

“How do you get away from having people that don’t have a conflict?” Aeder asked Glynn. “It’s very, very difficult. … What do you do about a company that comes in and they may have a ‘pool arrangement,’ where everybody (in a township) benefits (financially)?”

“It’s called a bribe,” said a woman in the audience.

Vollmar contended that in Almer Township, no wind turbines can be built south of Fairgrove Road. A man in the audience disagreed, claiming a wind turbine is planned near the corner of Cameron and Deckerville roads.

“Half the people complain who won’t even see a windmill unless they go for a ride,” Vollmar said. “It’s way out in the farmland, way away from Caro. There’s a few houses around there, but most of the people I talk to in those houses don’t mind. A few do, yes.”

Pattullo said that in the months prior to the 2016 elections, Ellington Township elected officials approved “probably the weakest ordinance (regarding wind turbines) maybe anywhere in the state in the last five years.”

Pattullo said the ordinance allows a noise level of an average 55 decibels at a home. Pattullo said a group of residents “confronted” Ellington Township officials about the ordinance about 18 months ago.

“Fast forward, almost a year and a half now, it’s been hell,” Pattullo said. “I’ve stopped counting at 50 meetings that I’ve been to – every one of them as tense and stressful as the previous one.

“I think the lady from (Huron County’s) Meade Township said (wind developers) basically find the people that will be their bullies, and I don’t know, but you see some true colors that are just amazing. We see ’em in our churches, you run across them everywhere – in stores.

“My point of all this is we have somehow, by five or six miracles in a row, stopped this insane ordinance in Ellington Township and in neighboring Almer Township, through elections and through everything civil we could do.”

Pattullo said residents in the two townships continue trying to toughen their ordinances regarding wind-turbine development.

“We’re still trying to change our ordinances to get them at least up to something maybe that Huron County would have discarded four years ago because they weren’t good enough,” Pattullo said. “Ours are still even worse than that.

“Now we’re to the point where we have these gigantic companies, with their armies of lawyers, trying to sue us into submission. We’re only going to have so much resources. We only have so many people around this community that will continue to stand up. The bullying is pretty serious and it scares a lot of people away.

“We’ve come pretty close to needing temporary restraining orders, all that kind of stuff.”