Public hearings that are part of the next phase of development for a $200 million wind turbine project in Tuscola County have been set in Ellington and Almer townships for after the Nov. 8 general election.
The public hearings are part of the development process with regard to Tuscola III Wind Energy Center, a project proposed to consist of 52 wind turbines in Almer, Ellington, and Fairgrove townships.
The developer – Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources L.L.C. – filed applications for special land use permits for the project in late September.
And despite objection to officials in Almer and Ellington townships deciding to use engineers from Saginaw-based engineering firm Spicer Group Inc., the hearings are set to determine if the applications qualify for special use permits.
In Almer, the public hearing is set for Nov. 10, 7 p.m.
In Ellington, the public hearing is set for Dec. 5, 6 p.m.
Both are tentatively scheduled to be held at the Tuscola Technology Center in Caro in anticipation of a large number of people expected to participate in each meeting, respectively.
“It’s getting into vacation season, people have a lot going on so it’s not entirely unexpected,” said Ryan Pumford, project manager, NextEra, Energy Resources after the Ellington Township planning commission held a meeting Monday to schedule the public hearing.
“We’re hoping for an expeditious review and it looks like they tried to get it as expeditious as they could,” Pumford said, adding that tax credits that expire at the end of 2016 are not a factor in the project’s timeline. He also said the company does not have a customer lined up for the power that would be created via Tuscola III. Ellington planning commissioners spent 45 minutes Monday trying to nail down a date that would work for the public hearing during which NextEra officials will be given an opportunity to make a thorough presentation to accompany the company’s application. The public also will have a chance to participate and was encouraged by Ellington Township planning commission chair George Mika to submit questions 15 days before the hearing (though not required).
The soonest date considered was Nov. 17, based on how long Robert Eggers, principal, Spicer Group Inc., said it would take Spicer to review the application.
Eggers addressed those in attendance at Monday’s meeting in Ellington Township.
“Our role is to take the township’s ordinance and use that as the guide to compare it to the NextEra submittal for the wind project,” he said. “I know our role is not popular. I will tell you we will do the best we can to make sure that the developer follows the requirements of your ordinance…that they have pledged.
“We do not make the decision on this project, we tell the planning commission ‘hey, here’s what was submitted, here’s how it compares to your ordinance…here’s some thoughts’ but it is the planning commission’s decision.”
Spicer was retained by Almer and Ellington township officials last week to work on the project.
Many of the group known as the Ellington-Almer Concerned Citizens (EATCC) opposed the move – and have for months – claiming the relationship between Spicer and NextEra was a little too close for comfort. They wanted the contract put out for bid, something that would be allowed, though is not required per any laws.
Regardless, Almer pushed on with Spicer – with the board of trustees approving a scope of work an hour before a planning commission meeting last Wednesday – and Ellington moving forward with Spicer last week at its Oct. 4 board meeting.
“We called this special meeting tonight to review Spicer’s, uh, well I guess I’m gonna call it ‘extension of our contract,’” said Duane Lockwood, Ellington Township supervisor while looking toward township attorney Brian Garner during the Oct. 4 meeting.
“It’s more like a memo of understanding,” Garner pointed out.
Lockwood – who had excused himself from any wind-related discussions in February because he has wind leases with NextEra – then turned the meeting over to Garner.
Garner reminded the board that the township had a previous contract with Spicer in developing the township’s wind ordinance “and it included continuing on and providing professional services for the special land use and site plan applications, but it describe in detail what those duties would be.”
The Advertiser has a copy of the June 30, 2014 scope of work with for the wind ordinance but there isn’t any mention of continuing on past the point of adoption of a wind ordinance. Garner was asked by The Advertiser Monday if there was another reference to it anywhere else and he said he “would have to check.” He did not respond by press time nor did any other current elected official in Ellington.
With regard to the new scope of work, Garner said Spicer “for full transparency with everybody, provided a copy that can be FOIAed, of what they’re offering to do for their services so everybody knows what it is.”
Garner said the letter of understanding outlines that scope of work and “was sent to Joddy (Ehrenberg) the clerk.” The June 30, 2014 scope for the wind ordinance was sent to Lockwood.
The new memo relates to the 19 wind turbines – and related infrastructure – that are part of Tuscola III and proposed for Ellington Township.
Per the scope of work, Spicer estimates its fees for this part of the project in Ellington will be $52,000.
Comparable figures for Almer and Fairgrove could not be obtained by press time.
Though Monday’s meeting in Ellington was to set a time for the public hearing, several attendees were already thinking specifics with regard to NextEra’s application and how it will be scrutinized.
“One thing I’ve observed in board meeting and planning commission meetings is that you have the applicant right in front of you, yet hardly any questions are asked,” said Jim Tussey, of Almer Township and member of the EATCC.
Tussey, who also owns Caro MotorSports, pointed out that when he wanted to build a new storage shed on the business’s property, he was asked questions by every single planning commissioner.
“What are you doing? Where are you doing? How big is it going to be? Where’s the driveway? Where’s your garbage? Where’s your greenbelt? Scouring over the prints,” Tussey said. “I find it interesting we get to an industrial piece of equipment, which is arguably 30 to 40 times bigger than the building, and between Almer and Ellington planning commissioners, there’s almost no questions.
“What I see is that planning commissioners give up their rights to ask questions and rely entirely on Spicer,” he said.
Eric Zbytowski, of Ellington Township, and who sought appointment to a planning commission vacancy earlier this year, also addressed the need for additional input.
“I would encourage you to take input from myself and other engineers in the community,” he said. “I’ve reviewed the document already, I can provide input and share that, and I’d like to encourage you to accept that.”
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Tuscola County Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org