Voters in Osceola County's Sherman Township have overturned regulations for wind turbines in referendums twice in recent years. That was enough to make Heritage Sustainable Energy give up on plans to locate wind turbines there.
Now, Next Era Energy wants to locate wind turbines in the township and local officials are looking for a fresh set of regulations that could allow that to happen. But the same local activist group that so far has been able to help keep the turbines away is poised to fight them off again.
"It looks to me like we're probably going to end up having a third referendum," Victoria Brehm said. "The township voters have spoken twice and said: 'We don't want wind turbines here.' But township officials seem determined to try and find ways to let them come in anyway."
Wind plants are being built in Michigan as the state's two largest electric utilities, Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison, attempt to comply with a 2008 law that mandated that 10 percent of the state's energy come from in-state renewable sources.
Although the law was supposed to reduce carbon emissions, critics of wind power point out that, because Michigan is not a good wind state, wind plants here have to be backed up by fossil fuel sources most of the time anyway. The 2008 law did not require that emissions be measured to find out if the mandate was accomplishing its goal.
Brehm is a primary organizer and chief spokesperson for Save Our Sherman, the local activist organization that wants to keep wind turbines out of Sherman Township, or wants setback distances established that make sure noise levels aren't a problem.
Sherman Township Supervisor David Eggle said Brehm is wrong about the referendums and wrong about his motives. He said that personally he's not fond of wind turbines and doesn't agree with the state's 10 percent renewable energy mandate, but he said he also doesn't think the two referendums were clear-cut proof that township voters oppose letting wind turbines be built in the township.
"It (the last referendum) was decided by just 13 votes," Eggle said. "There were about 800 eligible voters and the turnout was about 30 or 31 percent. Also, I think a portion of those who voted for the referendum did so because they thought the restrictions were too strict.
"Victoria Brehm promoted a one mile setback as mandatory," he said. "To me, that would be exclusionary zoning. We couldn't have any wind towers if that was the required setback. But the referendums did pass, so now we're back to trying to work through the process."
Brehm said two by-mail polls of township voters reflect virtually the same anti-wind sentiments that were demonstrated in the referendums.
"Local communities can set standards and then it is up to the developer to decide whether or not it's worth it to try to comply," said Kevon Martis, senior policy analyst for the Interstate Informed Citizen's Coalition, a nonprofit organization that is concerned about the construction of wind turbines in the region. "It's done all of the time with things like adult bookstores, mobile home parks and signs."
Eggle said zoning shouldn't interfere with what a landowner can do with his or her property.
"I just believe people have rights regarding the use of their own property, as long as it is legal, and wind turbines are legal in the state of Michigan," Eggle said.
Eggle and Ron Moesta, chairman of the Sherman Township Planning Commission, acknowledged that the township has to proceed carefully and keep an eye on what happens with important wind turbine related court cases in neighboring counties.
In Mason County, northwest of Osceola County, there are two ongoing court cases involving allegations that wind turbines in the Lake Winds Energy Plant, located south of Ludington, were built too close to homes and are having adverse health impacts due to noise levels.
"There is a lot of controversy over the sound generated by wind turbines," Moesta said. “...I’ve researched it a lot on the Internet. You can bring in one expert who will say one thing and someone else can be brought in who will tell you something else."