Special meetings were held for Almer and Ellington townships Tuesday with one general mission: slow progress on a $200 million wind turbine project in the works for Tuscola County.
Each board posted public notice of the special meetings Sunday evening, and within hours of newly elected officials taking office. The meetings were held after press time for The Advertiser, but the agendas for each were nearly identical: to consider a moratorium on wind turbine developments; potential changes to legal representation; and changes to the planning commissions in each respective community.
The Ellington Township agenda also referred to “consideration of an Open Meetings Act violation.”
Leading up to the meetings, officials told The Advertiser the overall goal was to slow the process of approving the special land use permit applications for Tuscola III Wind Energy Park, a $200 million project planned for Almer, Ellington, and Fairgrove townships.
“I have felt like for the duration this has been forced onto the fast-track,” said Jim Mantey, Almer Township’s new supervisor. “And I think going into this, we really want to slow it down and make sure it is fair to everyone in the township.”
“I think we just need to slow things down,” said Art Graff, elected to serve as a trustee on the Almer Township board. “There’s been so much new information that’s come up.”
Tuscola III is a project of Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources L.L.C. through the subsidiary Tuscola III L.L.C.
The project has been in the works for several years, according to records from the Tuscola County Register of Deeds that show the company securing leases in Almer and Ellington as far back as 2014. Unlike Fairgrove Township (which already has wind turbines as part of a previous NextEra Energy Resources project), the industrial machines would be new to both communities.
Area residents who don’t have wind leases for the project generally became aware of the plans in late 2015 as officials reviewed wind ordinances to prepare for Tuscola III. Several residents spent nearly all of 2016 fighting to be heard about concerns ranging from alleged conflicts of interest to concerns relating to health, safety, and welfare.
Several formed a group called the Ellington-Almer Concerned Citizens and hired their own attorney. Others spoke through their votes – electing a new supervisor and three new trustees in Almer Township (Treasurer Patricia Witkovsky and Trustee Brian Schriber were re-elected). Ellington Township voters elected a new supervisor, clerk, treasurer and trustee (Trustee Michael Wagner was the lone survivor of the former board).
In late September, NextEra Energy Resources filed its applications for special land use permits for Tuscola III in the three townships. The former boards held a series of last minute meetings until the new boards took over at noon on Sunday.
Around 9 p.m. that day, public notices for the Tuesday meetings were posted.
Mantey said that the township has the ability to put a moratorium in place because nothing has been approved with regard to the application filed by NextEra Energy Resources. Before the meeting, Mantey indicated he would be in favor of a moratorium of at least six months.
In Ellington Township, Russ Speirs, newly elected supervisor, said he was leaning toward suggesting a one-year moratorium.
Mantey and Speirs separately referred to nearly 20 issues identified by Saginaw-based Spicer Group – the engineering firm hired by both communities to oversee the application process – with regard to the application for special land use permits. The company identified the issues at a public hearing that lasted nearly 3.5 hours on Nov. 10 (a similar meeting was set for Dec. 5 in Ellington as of press time).
Issues identified by Spicer, among others, included not enough information about environmental impact, snow and ice on wind turbine blades, how close wind turbines would be to other structures, security of turbines, and sound.
Mantey and Speirs also referred to a presentation by a sound expert brought in by Spicer who essentially showed the sound impact of wind turbines in Almer Township would be greater than originally presented, among other things.
“That presentation made it sound like their special land use application had more holes than Swiss cheese,” Mantey said.
Graff echoed the statement.
“For all these months, people from the audience have been bringing information up and totally ignored,” Graff said. “(The sound expert) pretty much reiterated the facts that have been said from the audience for all these months – that they’re not meeting the ordinance, and that they’re not going to be able to meet the ordinance with what they have.”
The boards also were set to discuss legal counsel with regard to the Tuscola III project.
Lapeer-based Taylor, Butterfield, Howell, Churchill & Garner P.C. has served as legal counsel to the townships throughout the process. Speirs said he was interested in discussing a second opinion on some of the legal aspects of Tuscola III.
“I have some concerns about the current law firm (Taylor, Butterfield), but at this time I still view (the firm) as an asset to the township,” he said prior to the meeting.
Issues also exist with regard to the planning commissions in each township.
In Almer, Mantey said he expected the board of trustees to replace Brian Schriber as the liaison between the two units of government.
“It just has felt like our board representation on the planning commission was less than objective,” Mantey said.
The Almer board also must fill the seat that Mantey had to vacate upon becoming township supervisor.
In Ellington, former clerk Joddy Ehrenberg was liaison to the planning commission. She lost in the November general election to Bobbie Mozden.
Speirs said before the meeting that he was considering suggesting Gregg Campbell – newly elected trustee – to the position. Campbell has been a fixture at meetings in Ellington, Almer and Fairgrove throughout the year.
“He digs in, he seeks to understand, and he thinks for himself,” Speirs said of Campbell. “I think those are key qualities for a planning commission member.”
Ellington Township officials also were set to address an issue related to an alleged Open Meetings Act violation on the part of the previous board.
Speirs said public notice wasn’t properly posted by the previous board for a regular board of trustees’ meeting rescheduled from Nov. 8 (due to the general election) to Nov. 1. At that Nov. 1 meeting, two appointments were made to the Ellington planning commission – George Mika and Eugene Davison.
“So it looks like we’ll be redoing that one,” Speirs said.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org