SIDNEY TOWNSHIP — Having moved to rural Montcalm County from Grand Rapids two years ago, Rebecca and Andrew Murray have described their life on a farm while raising three children as a dream “30 years in the making.”
“After five years of looking, putting in offers and having them fall through, we found our farm on W. Holland Lake Road,” Rebecca said. “The beauty of the rolling land, the peace and the quiet, have been an absolute blessing from the Lord and the kind of place we envisioned for our kids to grow up.”
Rebecca painted this picture during Monday evening’s meeting of the Sidney Township Board — a meeting which attracted an audience of about 120 people — all gathered outdoors at Sidney Township Park due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rebecca’s description of a dream come true prefaced what she, and the majority of the crowd in attendance, described what they considered to be a “nightmare” if it came to fruition — wind turbines.
Apex Wind Energy, based out of Charlottesville, Virginia, recently completed the “Isabella Wind” wind turbine project to the north of Montcalm County in adjacent Isabella County. That $800 million project, spread throughout five townships on more than 55,000 acres, features a total of 136 wind turbines that will generate 385 megawatts (MW) of energy — about 97,000 homes.
The company is now focusing its efforts on Montcalm County with a proposed $600 million “Montcalm Wind” project, that at this time is projected to construct 75 wind turbines spread out across 11 townships in the county and generate 375 MW of energy — about 95,000 homes — upon completion projected for 2023.
One of those townships is Sidney Township, and with it being a zoned township, the Sidney Township Board will have to draft a wind turbine zoning ordinance to accommodate and regulate any potential construction.
If completed, the project is projected to generate millions in future tax revenues for the county via property taxes and thousands in revenue for property owners through wind turbine leases signed with Apex.
However, not everyone is on board with such a dramatic change in landscape.
The topic of wind turbines took up nearly the entirety of Monday’s two-hour meeting.
“We realize that the farmers in this area own this land and we respect that, but we also want to stand up and fight for the dream that brought us to Sidney in the first place,” Rebecca said. “Wind turbines would forever change the landscape of Sidney. We believe the field around our home is being considered. It’s not a huge field and we feel like a wind turbine would literally be on top of us. The beauty and the peace, we think it is being taken away from us so others can profit and it makes us feel sick.”
Throughout the meeting, turbine opponents expressed many concerns, ranging from potential health hazards, alleged loss of property sale value, “trespass zoning” and shadow flickers brought on by shadows as a result of the rotating blades.
Sidney Township resident Erik Benko said while turbines may be appropriate in spacious fields with no residents to account for, he does not believe that is an adequate description of Sidney Township.
“Sidney Township is not comprised of desolate cornfields where you can build a towering 600-foot wind turbine without anyone noticing,” he said. “People live here. Nobody has the right to cast a flickering shadow that blots out the sun intermittently on our homes and property, nor do they have the right to destroy the peace, serenity and nature of our lifestyle here. We do not want these things in our township, plain and simple.”
Benko pleaded that the Township Board not entertain the concept of allowing wind turbines to be installed.
“I call on you as board members to show your fellow residents of the community the passion and integrity that you have — please say no to these things,” he said. “Write an impossible ordinance for wind turbine placement and let’s all get back to living our lives in peace.”
Monday’s meeting, which stretched into the darkness after sunset, featured constant interruptions and countless allegations on both sides of the issue from the audience. Township Clerk Carrie Wills said the board has not yet taken any specific direction on the subject.
“I spent several hours this week looking on the computer, at some of the comments, at YouTubes … I have not made up my mind that I am going to push this through,” Wills said. “We’re trying to investigate it, we’re trying to look at it. We’re talking to MTA (Michigan Townships Association) about legal issues and we need to see an attorney so we know what our next step is, but we have not all made up our decision. We are trying to investigate it.”
CONFLICT OF INTEREST?
Audience members especially took issue with Township Trustee Jed Welder having an alleged conflict of interest in the matter. Welder has previously confirmed he has already signed a lease agreement with Apex.
According to Benko, Welder placed pro-wind energy signs, along with a small pinwheel, on property he owns across from Benko, which Benko described as a “bullying” tactic.
“These petty, self-serving, juvenile antics and obvious lack of judgment are reasons I no longer trust Jed to make any decisions regarding the future of Sidney Township from a board seat,” Benko said. “I am hereby calling on Jed Welder to resign as board trustee from Sidney Township.”
Welder, who excused himself from Monday’s meeting after its start at the recommendation of the MTA due to a possible conflict of interest — observing the remainder of the meeting from the audience — told the Daily News he has no intention of resigning.
“Am I going to resign? Absolutely not,” he said. “If I thought it would raise revenue for the roads and sheriffs department I’d put a windmill through my back porch.”
Welder said he believes the possible tax revenue that could be generated from wind turbines in Montcalm County is too valuable an opportunity to pass up.
“No one else on the township board has received, or will receive, any money — no one is being ‘paid off’ by Apex,” he said. “The county, township and school systems will benefit from the increased tax revenue, the road commission will benefit from the improvements to roads.”
Welder added that he does not believe the addition of wind turbines would detract from the daily standard of living for residents in Sidney Township.
“My family has farmed here for half a century. After leaving the Army, my wife and I could have chosen to live anywhere in the world, but we chose to come to Sidney to raise our family and our crops,” he said. “I would never support anything that would have a negative impact on the place that we live and love. I’m excited for this project and what it means for those of us that live here.”
Sidney Township resident Laura Thompson said she was fearful of a future that could result in a “fracture” of the community, with a war of words and antics potentially ensuing between previously peaceful neighbors.
“I am confident we can see Sidney Township thrive peacefully in the future, but as long as wind turbines are a part of the picture, you will always have division,” she said. “Let’s continue to keep Sidney a beautiful place for families to live and grow without wind turbines.”
Sidney Township resident Andy Welch pleaded with the Township Board that it take the concerns of residents seriously and not dismiss them.
“This threat is too big and too serious to stay silent,” he said. “Sidney Township is our home and we chose to live here for a reason — to unwind after a long day, hunt, farm, have bonfires with family and friends, watch sunrises and sunsets without towering commercial and industrial structures. Life in the country is what we’ve chosen and what we want to hold onto. We don’t want to be surrounded and towered over by 600-foot tall spinning skyscrapers.
“When we raise concerns about negative impacts that are widely reported and documented, we don’t want to be told we are a bunch of whiny nimbys and conspiracy theorists,” he continued. “We don’t want to hear ‘just get used to it,’ when voicing opposition. What’s at stake here is our quality of life.”
Audience members alleged that the subject of developing a wind ordinance “came out of nowhere;” however, the Sidney Township Board and Sidney Township Planning Commission have had multiple public meetings on the topic and the Daily News has been writing about Apex’s proposed project for Sidney Township — and other local townships — since last August.
Board Trustee Ray Leyrer said the concerns of township residents will be taken seriously as it pursues a possible wind and solar ordinance.
“I’m on the Planning Commission and we’re in the process of drafting an ordinance for wind and solar and it’s going to take months and months and months to do that,” he said. “We’re going to listen to you.”
The Township Board and Planning Commission will not meet again until February, as the Township Board voted at Monday’s meeting 3-1, with Welder opposed and Treasurer Corinda Stover absent due to illness, to close Sidney Township Hall for all business until then due to a local increase in COVID-19 cases.