Township Officials: Cronyism Rife On Lucrative Wind Project Deals
Wind farm developers pay landowners $1,000-$1,500 per month to allow a turbine tower
The Michigan House Energy Committee heard testimony this week from a group of current and former township officials supporting a bill proposing four years in prison for township officials who vote on a zoning change from which they or their family will profit financially.
Marion Township Trustee Jon Block talked about a questionable practice the bill seeks to end, which he says is now common in some rural areas such as his Sanilac County township.
Block described his experience as a planning commissioner for the township when it was considering permissive zoning for one of the largest wind turbine farms in the state. He told the committee that five township officials who would have a say on the zoning changes had, as landowners, signed turbine tower lease deals with the developer seeking approvals for the project.
Bill sponsor Rep. Gary Glenn told the committee (which he also chairs) that he has found similar questionable arrangements in other rural townships targeted by wind farm developers. He said these lease contracts typically pay a landowner $1,000 to $1,500 per month.
The committee agreed to discuss a version of Glenn’s bill that would authorize up to four years in prison for any official who fails to disclose a conflict of interest of this nature and votes on a measure anyway. Glenn said he wanted to give some teeth to an existing state conflict-of-interest law.
Block described getting uncharacteristically aggressive and threatening responses from his fellow commissioners when he raised questions about the wind proposal. The threats caused him to investigate further. Three of the five township’s planning commissioners who voted on the wind project had signed agreements to lease land to Exelon for wind turbines, as had two members of the five-member township board, who had also voted on wind projects. They would all benefit financially if the project went through.
Marion Township Supervisor Arnold McVittie told The Times Herald of Port Huron that in 2016, the township’s lawyer told the board and planning commission members that their having wind turbine leases did not constitute a conflict of interest. He added that voting on the project was “perfectly legal.”
Other local officials testified at the committee hearing and spoke of similar conflicts of interests. One was Leo Sonck, a long-time planning commissioner in Bridgehampton Township, also in Sanilac County. He described getting pushback on a proposed zoning plan update from the then-township supervisor, who wanted changes on the measure, and implied that planning commission members who did not go along would not be reappointed.
Sonck said he later discovered that the supervisor and two township board members had signed lease deals with a wind developer.
“I welcome the idea of some serious penalties for those who choose to fill their own pockets instead of leading their community properly,” Sonck said in his written testimony.
The committee also received written testimony on the original bill (which did not have the criminal penalties) from Andrea Brown, executive director of the Michigan Association of Planning. Brown said she was concerned that the bill’s language was too vague, and that to avoid “much arguing,” it needs to more precisely define “direct financial interest.”
Some committee members questioned whether the proposed penalties were too stringent, adding that it is already difficult to find individuals willing to serve on these public bodies.
Michigan Capitol Confidential has previously reported on two county commissioners considering permissive zoning changes to allow 200 or more turbine towers in Isabella County under leases with developer Apex Clean Energy.
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.