JUNIATA TWP. – The Juniata Township Planning Commission’s second attempt at a special wind-farm meeting didn’t get much farther than its first attempt.
The meeting, where the planning commission was to hear NextEra Energy’s presentation of a potential wind farm project in Juniata Township, as well as concerns from citizens, was adjourned about a half hour after it began Saturday morning.
Originally scheduled for Monday, Nov. 20, the special meeting was postponed until Saturday morning at 9 a.m. Some Juniata residents expressed displeasure with the meeting being held on a Saturday morning, but many more were angry with the meeting’s location — next to the Juniata Township Hall, 1971 S. Ringle Road, outdoors in a 15-by-30-foot tent. According to The Weather Channel, the temperature was 25 degrees at the time of the meeting, and the area was in the midst of its first snowfall of the season.
At about 9:30 a.m., Caro Fire Department Chief Randall Heckroth arrived and announced the maximum occupancy of the tent was 40 people, and that any crowd larger than that was a fire hazard due to two portable furnaces under the tent. “We’ve got a complaint on your occupancy load here, 40 is your max, OK?” Heckroth told the crowd. “If one of the heaters were to tip over, we’d have chaos. What I need for your safety is to have the maximum of 40 individuals in here.”
Heckroth went on to say that the walls of the tent could be removed, making the tent, in essence, a pavilion. But that didn’t sit well with the attendees, most of whom were standing near an open portion of the west side of the tent, or were standing outside in the elements with no relief from the snow and cold.
An Advertiser reporter counted 110 people within the confines of the tent and dozens more outside.
After Heckroth issued his order, multiple audience members shouted, “Call the meeting” and “Cancel the meeting.” One person shouted, “We want to be safe, but we should have had a gymnasium to begin with.”
After a brief discussion among members of the planning commission, Chairperson Vic Sonquist announced that the walls of the tent would be taken off, and the meeting would continue, which was met by negativity from the crowd.
One crowd member shouted, “Reschedule it to the (Tuscola Technology) Center where it can be inside.” Which garnered a cheer from the audience.
The planning commission then reconvened, as several members of the crowd shouted for the meeting to be rescheduled.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a serious problem here as you all know,” Sonquist said moments later. “What we’re going to do is adjourn this meeting and we’re going to take it up at a later date.”
The announcement received the loudest cheer of the day.
The announcement of a special meeting must be at least two weeks before its scheduled date. Planning commission members on Saturday did not know when the rescheduled meeting would take place.
When asked about a possible reschedule date, Sonquist said, “The only thing we can do is just keep the public informed and we’ll do our best to make it right this time.” To which crowd members responded, “Thank you” and shouted more cheers.
The purpose of the meeting was for the planning commission, and Juniata residents, to listen to representatives of NextEra, which is based in Juno Beach, Fla., give a presentation regarding a new wind farm it plans to build in Juniata and Fairgrove Townships. The project, called Pegasus, would be the third wind farm (along with the Tuscola Wind I and Tuscola Wind II projects) constructed by NextEra in Tuscola County.
There has been great debate in Tuscola County regarding the construction of wind farms. After Tuscola Wind I and Wind II were constructed, the Tuscola Wind III project came to a halt after a concerned citizens’ group representing Almer Township and Ellington Township was formed. The planning commissions in Almer and Ellington townships voted to change their existing guidelines on accepting a special land use permit for the building of wind turbines. NextEra subsequently filed a lawsuit against the two Tuscola County townships in federal court. Both cases are pending.
According to its website, NextEra is the world’s largest generator of renewable energy from the wind and sun, has about 5,000 employees and had a consolidated revenue of about $16.2 billion in 2016.
The Pegasus project calls for 31 wind turbines to be constructed in Juniata Township and 32 in Fairgrove Township.
Prior to the Nov. 20 meeting, attorney Joshua Nolan, of Nolan L.L.C, of Toledo, Ohio, sent a letter to members of the Juniata Township Planning Commission stating it violated Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. Planning Commission member, and Juniata Township Clerk, Heidi Stark told The Advertiser that the meeting was not postponed because of the letter, but so the commission could take more time to review NextEra’s proposal.
Nolan represents Juniata resident Garrett Tetil, who heads the Juniata Township Concerned Citizens group.
At Saturday’s meeting, there was a lone microphone in use, connected to a podium near the front of the tent. Directly after Sonquist called the meeting to order, Nolan, seated in the front row, stood up to address the planning commission.
“This meeting is illegal in itself,” Nolan said. “You are excluding members of the public from participating in the meeting, you are forcing them to stand outside in a snowstorm in 20-degree weather. This is a violation of their due process, a violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act.”
Nolan reiterated his objection to the meeting following Heckroth’s announcement that the tent was over capacity.
After Nolan first addressed the planning commission, Sonquist opened the meeting. He didn’t get far though as he was interrupted by audience members shouting, “Use the microphone,” “We can’t hear you” and “This is ridiculous” from outside the tent.
Sonquist then stepped to the podium.
“The purpose of today’s hearing is to consider a special land use application from Pegasus wind energy group,” Sonquist said. “This is a public hearing and not an opportunity to debate and argue with other speakers. The planning commission is here to listen to the comments of the speakers and not to enter into discussion or debate with the speakers.”
As audience members attempted to get closer to the tent in order to hear commentary, a woman slipped in the wintry conditions and fell to the ground. She was helped to her feet and did not appear injured.
After Sonquist opened the meeting, Pegasus Project Manager Erico Lopez addressed the commission and audience, saying that the plan was to have Pegasus under construction by spring 2018 and completed by winter 2018.
After Lopez’s presentation, the floor was given to a NextEra contractor, one of about eight people affiliated with NextEra that came to the meeting. The contractor, a wind-turbine sound-and-flicker-effect expert, was interrupted by Heckroth shortly into his presentation.
Lopez said NextEra had no input regarding the time or date of Saturday’s meeting, and won’t have a say over when the planning commission reschedules it.
“The planning committee will decide on another date and venue,” Lopez said. “And we’ll be ready to present at that time, just like we were ready today.”
Stark said that the planning commission wanted to hold the meeting in Juniata Township because “It’s a Juniata Township issue, it should be here and that would be the preference.”
She told The Advertiser previously that holding Saturday’s meeting in a tent was the best option within the confines of the township.
“We’ve never had this many people before,” Stark said Saturday. “We thought we had reasonable accommodations, but that was far larger than we’ve ever seen in Juniata Township.
“This crowd is unprecedented for Juniata Township.”
Some crowd members theorized that the location and time of the meeting was to discourage the public from attending. Which was refuted by Stark.
“If we wanted the least amount of people, we would have not noticed the entire township,” Stark said. “We are not required to notify the entire township.”
The Advertiser will provide the time and date of the next special meeting when it is announced.