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Wind industry strikes against local zoning control in Michigan

After losing big in township votes, turbine companies seek state preemption of local rules

Wind energy businesses are targeting local zoning ordinances after their campaign to coat Michigan with large vertical turbines lost four referenda and seven local government allies in this month’s election.

“You ever hear that old saying about winning a battle, but losing the war? Now seems like an appropriate time to reflect on that,” Apex Clean Energy’s senior development manager Albert Jongewaard wrote in an email, after voters throughout Montcalm County rejected wind energy supporters and ballot initiatives. “It’s no fun to be on the wrong side of history.”

In his message to a leading opponent of unrestricted turbine placement, Jongewaard added, “I have you on the invite list for an invitation to the ribbon cutting ceremony for when we ultimately do break ground in Montcalm.”

Voters in Montcalm County rejected four separate ballot initiatives aimed at allowing Apex’s commercial wind turbine project to go forward. They also recalled seven officials who had been targeted for their support of or financial ties to the unpopular turbine project. Belvidere Township also rejected a solar energy ordinance.

This month’s vote continues a bipartisan trend of recalls and rejections of pro-wind initiatives in counties and townships around the state. One turbine opponent estimates Michigan voters have now said no to 28 out of 28 local wind ordinances. In response, Apex and other energy players, who command a host of lobbyists, activists, and friendly media, appear to be targeting local zoning itself.

Apex’s Jongewaard did not respond to a request for comment, but pro-turbine media stories have pointed unanimously toward statewide preemption since the election.

“Environmental and clean energy advocates in Lansing are frustrated by the anti-renewable push happening in rural communities across Michigan,” MLive reporter Garret Ellison wrote shortly after the vote. “Increasing renewable generation from wind and solar is crucial to transitioning the energy market away from fossil fuels which are helping drive climate change.”

The article goes on to blame “NIMBYism” for the election losses, praising the “guardrails” Wisconsin and other states have put around renewable energy. It also quotes a Michigan Environmental Council official who says such states “are seeing [fewer] issues because they put in place a statewide solution, whereas in Michigan we’re still sort of fumbling through what to do about this.”

Ellison was not the only reporter transcribing pro-wind talking points.

“In some Midwest states, including Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, site approval for utility energy projects is done at the state level,” Bridge Michigan’s Ron French wrote in an article citing Michigan’s tradition of local control as a reason for the stalled visions of wind turbine interests. French assured readers that “there is growing discussion in Lansing of whether the state needs to take the renewable energy reins.”

One of Michigan’s neighbors has reversed course. Ohio abandoned its policy of preemption in October 2021, returning veto power to the counties — more than 10 of which have since banned industrial-scale wind and solar developments. A similar effort to move siting decisions to the state level in Indiana has, so far, not succeeded.

Renewable companies and activists have long considered preemption of local zoning a potential tool for imposing turbine fields on communities that don’t want them. Wind giant NextEra sued Tuscola County’s Almer Township in 2017 after the community ousted three board members with ties to the wind energy industry. A federal judge in Bay City eventually ruled against the company, but Apex has already mentioned to media outlets the possibility of going to court, after its ballot box loss in Montcalm County. (Apex also lost a vote in Ohio, where residents of Crawford County voted by a nearly three-to-one margin to uphold a 10-year ban on industrial wind farms.)

But while local voters continue to shut out big wind projects, renewable energy companies and their supporters see hope in this month’s statewide elections, which saw Democrats take both chambers of the Legislature, retain the governor’s office, and roll up all statewide offices.

“We've been working with politicians and learning how to play the game and winning,” Sidney Township Trustee Erik Benko told Michigan Capitol Confidential, “and now they’re trying to change the rules on us.”

Benko is the co-founder of Montcalm County Citizens United, a Facebook group that rallied opposition to Apex’s plan. He won his seat on the township board in May after recalling a Republican turbine proponent.

While emphasizing that the effort to stop the wind farm project in Montcalm County was bipartisan, Benko called the election result “bittersweet,” because zealous renewable energy advocates are in control of statewide power. He has created a new umbrella, Michigan Citizens United, to coordinate local opposition groups around the state.

Statewide preemption of zoning for renewable energy has a mixed record nationwide, with Ohio and other states finding local opposition so strong that they abandoned earlier state-control policies. Opposition to turbine fields also cuts across party lines.

“For years Apex has been able to claim, ‘There’s a silent majority that wants renewables,’” Benko told CapCon. “We’ve shown that that isn’t true.”

“Before this election, 24 townships or counties had had weak wind referenda since 2009,” said Norm Stephens, a retired teacher in Carol who has helped lead anti-turbine fights around the state. “In all 24 of those, people voted against the weak wind ordinance. In this election all four went against the wind companies. So we’re up to 28. Rural Michiganders do not want wind turbines in their backyards, basically.”

The losses in local votes leave renewables companies little choice but to try again at the state level, Kevon Martis, Deerfield Township zoning administrator and a Lenawee County commissioner-elect, told CapCon.

Martis, founder of the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition and the recipient of Jongewaard’s email cited above, said this is why renewable activists are “attacking local zoning and attacking opponents of renewables.”

Clarification: This article was updated November 28 with additional biographical information for Kevon Martis. 

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.