ELLINGTON TWP. — Ellington Township’s contentious wind ordinance was fast-tracked into law with little public input and almost entirely based on recommendations from one Saginaw engineering firm using what the company calls its “wind development experience and knowledge.”
That’s according to emails obtained by The Advertiser through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act requesting all written communications between township officials and engineering firm Spicer Group from Jan.1, 2013 to March 15, 2016 and regarding wind turbines and/or the project known as ‘Tuscola III.’ The documents can be found here.
The Advertiser filed the FOIA request to try and get a better understanding of how the ordinance actually came to be in light of many contentious meetings held during the last four months.
The records show it took just a little more than six months from the time Spicer submitted its “scope of work” to review the ordinance to the time it was voted into place by the township board. The emails show drastic changes, too, such as Spicer inexplicably recommending elimination of what some feel are crucial lines like,“The tower shall not be unreasonably injurious to the safety or market value of nearby properties.”
Some say that change itself is a metaphor for why there’s been such so much contention.
“A lot of people have been following what’s been happening with the Flint water crisis and the word that keeps popping up is ‘transparency’ and there’s just a lack of it here,” said Norm Stephens, a member of the group known as the Ellington-Almer Concerned Citizens, who said he was stunned to see the change.
The ordinance review and adoption came as representatives of Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources were negotiating leases for land to construct Tuscola III, a $200 million wind turbine project the company has planned for Ellington, Almer, and Fairgrove townships. The company plans to launch operations for Tuscola III in 2017.
Duane Lockwood, supervisor, Ellington Township, was among those in negotiations with representatives of NextEra Energy Resources L.L.C. to lease land to the company, a fact with which some have taken issue.
“We were right,” said Jim Tussey, also a member of the group. “It’s clear that there are personal issues being pushed by a few large landowners and those people also happen to be in positions of authority.”
Tussey said he and other members of the concerned citizens group believe it was that pressure that led township officials to quickly enact what the concerned citizens have called a weak ordinance. They say what was adopted in Ellington Township was more about how many turbines can fit into one space and less about health, safety and overall impact on the community.
“That pressure led them to not research the details of the ordinance…because they were promised that the details had been taken care of by the professionals and that the people would be protected,” said Tussey.
The Advertiser tried to talk with Robert Eggers, principal, Spicer Group, after a March 12 Ellington Township Planning Commission meeting. After just a few questions about who pays Spicer and how much it has been paid for its work with the township, Eggers refused to answer and walked away.
Lockwood, who has recused himself from any official activity at the board level, did not respond to a request for interview by press time.
Brian Garner, attorney for Ellington Township, insisted that “no one is trying to hide the ball here.”
Officials from NextEra Energy have told The Advertiser that meeting with community leaders outside of open or public meetings is part of business. They said there are times when some of those leaders also are potential leaseholders.
For example, the emails show Lockwood was involved in private meetings with Spicer and NextEra representatives as the project continued evolving. That includes an Oct. 14, 2015 meeting in the Ellington Township Hall that consisted of a project overview, schedule, “township ordinance/ application package walkthrough,” and next steps.
Bryan Garner, manager of communications at NextEra Energy Resources, said the company would not have been able to have more than 100 wind farms around the country and Canada if it weren’t a good neighbor.
“We are a trustworthy company,” Garner told The Advertiser. “We have three core values at our company – committed to excellence, doing the right thing, and treating people with respect and that permeates everything we do.”
How Ellington got to now
Ellington Township’s wind ordinance has been a point of contention for the last four months, largely after the group that has grown to become known as the Ellington-Almer Concerned Citizens became aware of it.
Mike Pattullo, of Ellington Township and group member, recently told the Tuscola County Board of Commissioners even that might not have happened if Lockwood hadn’t mentioned the project when the two were part of a group putting up a Christmas tree in late 2015.
The group has consistently said it isn’t against wind turbines – only the township ordinance with respect to setbacks, or where wind turbines can be located in relation to other things.
Since early this year, the group has asked the Ellington Township Board of Trustees to put a moratorium in place and have the Ellington Township Planning Commission review the ordinance. The planning commission did hold several meetings on the subject but ultimately decided to not make any recommendation, effectively keeping the ordinance in place.
On Monday, however, the board of trustees sent the ordinance back to the planning commission once again – only this time with more specific direction as to what aspects of the ordinance to review. The board also issued a four-month moratorium.
Emails from Spicer to the township are particularly telling about how the township’s important wind ordinance came together fast during the second half of 2014.
A letter dated June 30, 2014 from Spicer Group addressed to Lockwood indicates “you asked that I take a look at your existing Wind zoning ordinance and suggest potential changes.”
Minutes of meetings from the township board meeting held Aug. 14, 2014, show Lockwood indicating that Eggers, of Spicer, would attend a planning commission meeting set for Sept. 16, 2014.
Minutes from the Sept. 16, 2014 planning commission meeting show that Eggers – with several NextEra representatives in attendance – presented a “draft copy of the proposed changes.” The minutes show there wasn’t much discussion about the changes.
A Sept. 18, 2014 email from Spicer to Ellington Township Planning Commission Chariman George Mika, however, followed and included 13 pages with “proposed changes.” The email from Spicer says “Attached are the sections of your ordinance with the proposed revisions.”
No context or explanation is given for the changes.
Some proposed revisions are minor – such as changing references of “commercial windmills” to “wind energy conversion systems” while others are more significant.
For example, Spicer recommended deletion of an entire paragraph requiring, among other things, an applicant to “submit a written explanation of the design characteristics and the ability of the structure(s) and attendant facilities to withstand winds, ice and other naturally occurring hazards.”
Also deleted is a sentence that says “The tower shall not be unreasonably injurious to the safety or market value of nearby properties.”
On Sept. 30, 2014 – 12 days after Spicer sent its proposed changes – the Tuscola County Register of Deeds recorded at least one lease agreement between Lockwood (Ellington Land Properties L.L.C.) and a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources.
Tussey said he doesn’t believe three months is enough time to develop an ordinance tailored to a specific project and/or community.
“I think that’s plenty of time to copy another ordinance from another community,” Tussey said. “In any engineering work, you always have to present where your data came from and what is missing from all of the work I’ve seen from Spicer is any supporting data – they’ve simply said ‘This is what we recommend.’”
On Jan. 13, 2015, Lockwood made the motion to put the township’s current ordinance – and proposed changes – in place. The ordinance was approved.
Other emails raise further questions.
For example, official minutes of a June 9, 2015 township board meeting – obtained through a separate FOIA request – say “Duane Lockwood opened the meeting to the public; George Mika had questions regarding wind turbines.” No other mention of wind or wind turbines exists.
However, emails show a lot more was happening behind the scenes at the same time.
A June 10, 2015 email exchange – one day after the township board meeting – is a detailed conversation between Mika and Eggers about setting up escrow accounts for decommissioning of wind turbines. Lockwood is cc’d (included) in nearly all of the emails.
“Do you know how many turbines they might place in Ellington Township? The amount of turbines helps determine the escrow amount. Without knowing, I think starting with around $50,000 or $60,000 is good,” Eggers wrote to Mika.
“We understand that the total number for the project will be about 59 turbines to be split between Ellington and Almer townships. They have not identified how many will be placed in Ellington specifically. Maybe half??” Mika said in his reply.
A Sept. 17, 2015 email from George Mika, chairman, Ellington Township Planning Commission, to Eggers is typical: “Let me discuss with Duane and get back to you on timing. Doesn’t this first meeting need to be advertised and open to the public?”
An email response to that wasn’t provided. Township attorney Brian Garner says the response “may” have been in a phone call or in person.
After months of attending various public meetings all over Michigan’s Thumb region, Pattullo and other concerned citizens say they are starting to feel encouraged by the response of officials to citizens speaking up.
He told The Advertiser there’s been a dramatic change in the way public officials are more open to considering all sides of the conversation when it comes to any issues regarding wind turbines. He wouldn’t say who, but someone even proactively reached out to him via text message to let him know about Monday’s special meeting in Ellington Township.
And Pattullo was among the first to thank the Ellington Township board when it voted to enact a four-month moratorium at that meeting.
Pattullo said he feels the breaking of the ice occurred during the Ellington Township board’s annual meeting, held the day before Easter.
“We just hope it continues,” Pattullo said.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org