Neighbors lose in court Mason County wind turbines going up

May 8, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Legal action filed by a group of people living near Consumers Energy’s Lake Winds Energy Park project in Mason County has failed in Mason County Circuit Court, and Consumers has announced the on-schedule resumption of construction after the winter hiatus.

Located in southwestern Mason County in Riverton and Summit townships, about 75 miles northwest of Grand Rapids, Lake Winds is an investment of $232 million that will result in 56 wind turbines capable of generating slightly more than 100 megawatts of power.

Last summer, a group called Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Renewable Energy was formed by people who live among the scattered sites where the turbines will be erected, just east of U.S. 31.

Mason County Zoning and Building Director Mary Reilly said CARRE filed an appeal of the county Zoning Board of Appeals decision last year to uphold the county Planning Commission’s permits for the wind farm. CARRE also asked for an injunction to stop the project.

According to court documents signed by Circuit Court Judge Richard I. Cooper March 16, CARRE claimed the ZBA made an “arbitrary and capricious” decision, and “further, that their determination was not supported by competent or substantial material evidence.”

CARRE argued five separate points: health concerns associated with nearby large wind turbines; violation of due process by the Mason County Planning Commission; incorrect consideration of the Planning Commission’s comprehensive plan by the county ZBA; hazards presented by a wind turbine potentially collapsing on nearby natural gas pipelines; and the financial impact on property values adjacent to the wind turbines.

“In all issues the challenge to the determination of the Zoning Board of Appeals is DENIED. The determination by the Zoning Board of Appeals is AFFIRMED,” concludes the judge’s decision.

Ronald M. Redick of Mika Meyers Beckett & Jones in Grand Rapids represented the Mason County Zoning Board of Appeals in Judge Cooper’s court. When asked which of CARRE’s arguments were weakest, in his opinion, Redick commented on the allegation that due process had not been followed.

“They brought a bundle of procedural challenges to the way the planning commission considered the application (by Consumers Energy),” he said, which included the commission holding work sessions on the application before holding a public hearing, “and how various notices were given. All of those arguments were weak, I thought, and the judge gave them very terse, cursory treatment and properly rejected them.”

The alleged health impact of nearby large wind turbines relates to the turbine noise keeping people awake at night. Cooper wrote that the exhibits provided by CARRE “have been voluminous” and that they reveal “variable degree of concern as to health impact and the percentage of people impacted.”

Cooper said CARRE’s exhibits reflect “substantial variations as to what (standard) is used” when permits are issued for wind farms. “With such widespread use variations, the evidence does not establish the Zoning Board of Appeals ruled arbitrarily or abused their discretion in that the levels adopted by Mason County appear to be within normal usage ranges.”

As to CARRE’s allegation that a turbine could collapse on nearby gas pipelines, possibly resulting in explosion or fire, Cooper noted that “three turbines are within the fall zone of the height of the tower extending to the gas line.” An ordinance planner hired by Mason County stated in a memo in March 2011 that the distance from the tower to the outside boundary line of the area comprising the special land use should be over 900 feet, and the judge wrote that “the above referenced concerns are not insignificant.” However, the issue of possible turbine collapse had been explored by the county officials.

Reilly had contacted Consumers Energy about turbine failures, wrote the judge, and she was subsequently advised in writing by Consumers spokesman Steven A. Schneider last June that “today there are over 13,000 Vestas megawatt class turbines in service worldwide, and to our knowledge, there has been a total of only one turbine collapse over the entire history of these product lines.” The failure was in 2002 and attributed to an unauthorized welding procedure on the turbine foundation ring by a sub-supplier during manufacturing.

Cooper noted that CARRE had submitted photographs of collapsed wind towers but he wrote, “It’s the Court’s understanding that none of those pictures represent a Vestas 100-1.8MW turbine, which is being used in Mason County. Further, the new Vestas 100-1.8MW is designed with a fire suppressor at the Nacelle and automatic propeller shut-off should propeller speed reach 17 revolutions per minute.” The turbine blades, which are 160.7 feet long and mounted on a tower approximately 295 feet tall, according to Cooper’s document, are designed to rotate at 16 rotations per minute or less, for normal operations.

As for financial impact on the abutting property owners, Cooper noted that the planning commission reviewed a large quantity of materials, and that it appeared to the commission that “property values would initially go down at the time the towers are completed, but eventually property values would return to a normal level compatible with non-tower properties.”

Right now, the main activity at the Lake Winds site is improvement of several area roads, a coordinated project involving Consumers Energy and the Mason County Road Commission. The work includes temporary road widening at several public road intersections to accommodate delivery of the wind turbine components and construction supplies. The largest pieces of turbine components will be delivered to the lay-down area off Pere Marquette Highway, with actual turbine construction beginning at the end of May.

Local residents will receive advance notice regarding local roads that will be affected in conformance with the Mason County Special Land Use Permit for the project. 

The general contractor on the Lake Winds project is White Construction Inc. of Clinton, Ind., which is continuing construction of access roads and turbine foundations. The first turbine foundations were poured in December; as of April 2, White had completed 25 foundations and about 33 percent of the associated underground electric system.

Lake Winds entails an area of roughly 6-by-6 miles, ranging from about a mile and a half to two miles inland from Lake Michigan, and a mile east of the Ludington Pumped Storage Project. The closest turbine to the U.S. 31 expressway will be less than 2,000 feet to the east, slightly more than a mile north of the Oceana/Mason county line.

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