Conflict Of Interest: Officials With Turbine Tower Leases Approve Wind Development
‘First you harvest the (local) officials, then you can harvest the wind’
An industrial wind facility is set to launch in Hillsdale County next year, despite significant opposition from local residents and questions. The opposition stems in part from a series of approvals granted by Wheatland Township officials who stand to benefit financially from the construction and operation of wind turbine towers and related facilities.
Opponents of the Crescent Wind Energy Center, organized as Concerned Citizen of Wheatland Township, claim the township’s planning commission and board rammed through ordinance modifications and use permits for Chicago-based developer Invenergy in 2018-19 despite widespread conflicts of interest.
During three of four public meetings on the project over those two years, said Chris Pollard, a leader in the Concerned Citizens group, the conflicts came up. In those meetings, a majority of both the commission and board was made up of members who had signed turbine tower lease contracts with the wind development company or had relatives who had done so.
A fourth meeting was held by the planning commission in 2018. At that meeting, a motion to approve an ordinance authorizing the Invenergy proposal was made by a commissioner who had signed a 25-year easement and tower lease, Pollard said. (His assertion, he said, is supported by commission minutes and county property records.) The approval, offered by the commissioner who also was the father-in-law of the township supervisor, was adopted without a recorded vote, according to Pollard.
Concerned Citizens plans to challenge the allegedly improper approval in court, he said. The Crescent Wind project, with at least 63 turbines over 25,000 acres across three townships, is nevertheless moving forward. The Michigan Public Service Commission last month approved the sale of the completed project, as well as the authorization to recoup its costs, to Consumers Energy, one of Michigan’s two regional electric utility monopolies.
Kevon Martis, an activist from nearby Lenawee County who monitors wind energy developers, said Invenergy’s strategy in Wheatland Township was clear-cut.
“First you harvest the (local) officials, then you can harvest the wind,” he said.
Martis has been involved in many grassroots campaigns to curb the proliferation of industrial wind developments. He describes them as government-sponsored and subsidized boondoggles that lead to higher energy costs while marring the landscape and disrupting local communities. Local opposition has resulted in 20 township referendums in Michigan since 2007, Martis said, each of which ended in defeat for wind interests.
The Crescent Energy project has reached near-fruition largely by operating under the radar in its early stages, Martis said. During that period, Invenergy entered into lease contracts for towers with dozens of landowners in Hillsdale County, including local officials in Wheatland.
Wheatland Township Supervisor David Stone said financial ties between board or planning commission members and the wind development company were not a significant factor in local officials’ decision-making. The planning commission, where four of seven members acknowledged holding contracts with Invenergy before they recommended the township approve the permits, is merely an advisory body, Stone said.
They have “no authority or power,” he said. According to Stone, only one member of the five-person township board has a direct interest in the financial success of Crescent Wind. (That member has lease contracts for 3 turbines and two substations, the Concerned Citizens group found, and has sold a parcel of property to Invenergy).
Stone said three other board members who have direct relatives with Invenergy contracts, including himself, are not conflicted and acted within their authority in approving the new wind ordinance and use permits.
Because of the breadth of the project, which includes an estimated 33 turbines in Wheatland, “it’s hard to find somebody who is not connected (to Invenergy),” Stone said.
Michael Homier, a veteran municipal lawyer based in Grand Rapids, said the rapid proliferation of wind energy developments has created an unprecedented level of alleged conflicts of interest by local officials in recent years.
He said that may be merely the nature of a business that uses so much land. But it is also possible that wind energy companies are gaming the system by targeting for development properties owned by local officials, Homier said.
Homier said state law requires members of a planning commission to disclose potential conflicts before acting on a development proposal. But the law provides no clearly defined circumstances under which an official can be prohibited from participating, he said. “The law is simply not settled on what happens when a majority (of members) is potentially conflicted, and (the board or commission) would have no quorum.”
A bill introduced in the Michigan House in 2017 would have made it a crime for members of a planning commission to not disclose a conflict and not abstain from voting on developments from which they benefit. At a hearing on the bill, residents of several communities targeted for wind development documented such conflicts of interest. The bill did not advance, however.
Invenergy declined to respond directly to questions about the alleged conflicts in Wheatland, instead providing a statement that touted the benefits of the Crescent Wind project to the local government treasury and the economy.
The project has been underway for nearly a decade, and “Invenergy has worked openly and transparently with community members, townships and the county during that time.”
Further, the company said, “There is strong support for the project. Many people want to see it built and are ready to receive the benefits Crescent Wind will bring to Hillsdale County.”
Stone said he believes the board and planning commission acted properly and “out of respect for the people who don’t want (windmills).”
“We’re neutral,” he said. “I have friends on both sides. But I’m not getting any compensation. The board was not receiving any compensation.”
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.