Commercial Wind Power in Northern Michigan: Three Stories

Northwestern Michigan counties and townships have been picking away at wind regulations for the past two or three years, but the new renewable energy law combined with a report released in June 2009 revealed the need to speed up the rulemakings. Published by the Michigan Wind Energy Resource Zone Board, the report identifies the three regions in the state with the greatest wind potential. Included on the list was a chunk of Northwest Lower Michigan’s gold coast, embracing all or portions of Manistee, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim and Charlevoix counties, an area the report said could sustain a maximum of 970 turbines. The other top regions were in the Thumb and Allegan County, which includes South Haven.

It is not an overstatement to say that local zoning officials are working on wind rules at a historic time. How they respond to the coming of wind development will determine, on the one hand, much about the look of our land for generations to come and, on the other hand, how rapidly our state responds to the national and global need to transition away from fossil fuels.

What’s happening in Benzie County, Centerville Township and Missaukee County represents three points on the continuum of possible approaches. Benzie’s Karen Roberts at one time taught labor economics and statistics at Michigan State University, but moved north nine years ago. She’s been on Benzie’s planning commission for three years, and the board chose her to chair the wind subcommittee when it was created in late 2008.

“At that time, I realized I could not become a wind expert, but I could try to become a wind ordinance expert,” she says. She set about gathering wind ordinances from around the nation and studying up on issues related to wind. She calls her work on the wind ordinance “fascinating” and “a gift” to be doing at this time in America’s history.

In a region noted for strong opposition to development, it’s unusual to hear of a planning commission welcoming something as large and industrial as wind farms, but Benzie’s planning commission did just that. “Welcoming was a word that was used a lot when we worked on this,” Roberts says.

In developing the rules, the biggest surprise for Roberts came in the lack of public opposition to commercial scale wind. The subcommittee met the first Thursday every other month, and only a few people would show up, none expressing strong opposition.

“Where I felt we’d have objections was ruining scenic views. There is no hiding those things. You can’t paint them to makethem disappear,” Roberts says. But the viewshed issue barely came up.

When the first draft of the ordinance was finished and ready for public discussion, the commission sent emails “all over the place” and bought a big ad in the local paper. “We had about 40 people turn out, which is huge for us,” she says. “I looked at the room, and I thought, This will be really terrible. But it was not. People were generally supportive.” When people expressed concerns, they did so from a problem-solving standpoint.

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