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Major Windpower Proposal Stirs Benzie, Manistee Counties

Enthusiasm, doubts mark initial reactions to $360 million idea

January 27, 2011 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Glenn Puit/MLUI
  Duke Power officials addressed concerns about their proposed Gail Windpower Project at an open house in Benzie County

A proposal by the nation’s largest energy company to erect more than 100 utility-scale wind turbines in Benzie and Manistee Counties holds the promise for an economic boost to the rural region, experts say, and will further the state’s efforts to become a leader in the nation’s emerging clean energy sector.

Many residents in the two counties are receiving the proposal, known as the Gail Windpower Project—and its potential economic impact—very enthusiastically.

“We are majorly supportive of this,” said Pam Harris Kaiser, whose family owns property in Arcadia, which is in northern Manistee County, along the Lake Michigan coastline. “Northern Michigan needs this; America needs this. We need clean energy …and we say bring it on. It’s a total win-win.”

Others, however, are raising concerns.

Chuck Beale, a leader of a group called Citizens for Responsible Wind Development, which opposes the project, told about 300 people gathered at the Garden Theater, in Frankfort, earlier this month that he’s urging a cautious approach due to some claims that wind turbines can harm human health. Others worry that the wind turbines will lower property values in the tourism-dependent economy.

“We are not trying to be exclusionary in any way,” said Mr. Beale, who owns a construction company in Frankfort. “I don’t think there is anybody here who doesn’t believe in renewable energy. It has to be done responsibly.”

Duke Energy, a Fortune 500 company based in Charlotte, N.C, is proposing the wind project. The utility has regular operations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. It just announced a merger with Progress Energy, making it the largest regulated utility in the country.

When the wind blows, Duke’s Gail Windpower Project would generate 200 megawatts of power—the output of a small coal plant—without coal-burning’s polluting, climate-changing emissions. The 485-ft. windmills would be placed in various locations within a 12,000 to 16,000 acre footprint largely consisting of orchards and farmland.

The company estimates that building the wind farm would create 150 construction jobs, while operating and maintaining it would produce about 25 permanent, full-time positions. It would, Duke says, represent a $360 million investment that would generate about $1.6 million a year in additional property taxes within each county.

Duke representatives say that area residents have been largely enthusiastic. The Gail Windpower Project Expo, a day-long open house at Benzie Central High School’s gymnasium, attracted close to 400 people, according to one company spokesman. Duke has already reached tentative wind royalty lease agreements with more than 100 landowners, representing about 10,000 acres.

Because wind royalty leases are private contracts, Duke does not disclosed how much it will pay landowners to allow wind turbines on their property. However, estimates by people who have seen leases signed by some local landowners indicate that they could earn between $12,000 and $15,000 per year, per turbine located on their property.

Duke also indicates that a “pooling” arrangement would provide income to others living within the project’s borders who, for various reasons—such as not enough wind or not enough space for the big machines on their property—cannot have windmills on their land.

The company proposes a minimum 1,000-ft. setback from residences; but the two local groups opposing the project insist that setbacks of 1.25 miles are necessary—a zoning regulation that would likely make the project very difficult if not impossible to build.

One farmer who has signed a lease with Duke, thereby agreeing to permit a turbine on his property to harvest wind power, is Jim March, of Arcadia Township, in Manistee County. Mr. March, who is the fourth generation of his family to operate the 263-acre beef-cattle farm, said it’s too early to know whether, how many, and where turbines would be erected on his property.

However, he said, if the project does come to fruition, the revenue will help him and his wife keep the farm in operation so their children can take it over in the coming decades.

“It would definitely pay the taxes and make some badly needed repairs that farm buildings are going without,” said Mr. March. He added that he supports a clean approach to energy generation.

“That’s one of the things discussed around the dining room table from the very beginning,” he said. “On a nice clear day, we are hoping our grandchildren’s children will be breathing...good air...because of these wind turbines being put up.”

Others, however, say they are very concerned about the proposal. The Citizens for Responsible Wind Development, along with the Arcadia Wind Study Group, sponsored the gathering at the Garden Theatre where Mr. Beale spoke, and showed the strongly anti-wind movie “Windfall.”

The movie presents a largely one-sided view of a proposal to build a wind farm in Meredith, N.Y.

“Windfall” chronicles how the proposal divided the rural community. It claims that wind turbines can make people sick, harm property values, cause fires, make shadows “flicker” across homes in a strobe-like effect, and create other problems.

The movie, which presents no views or facts either supporting or contradicting the claims made by the worried residents it interviews, clearly influenced the opinions of many in attendance, including Beulah resident Alice Mummey. Ms. Mummey says she is sympathetic to environmental causes and that she was involved in the successful campaign to stop a proposed new coal plant in Manistee five years ago.

But she said the movie gave her pause when it comes to building a wind farm in her own county.

“The more I find out, the less enthused I am,” Ms. Mummey said. “Even though I helped fight the coal plant and believe in renewables, the impacts I don’t think have been studied enough, and I’m grateful for a moratorium. We just need to carefully plan.”

Ms. Mummey is referring to temporary moratoriums on processing zoning applications for wind turbine permits recently enacted by Benzie’s Blain and Manistee’s Pleasanton Townships, which faced strong pressure from the two citizen groups. In their arguments to the board, the groups cited many of the objections that “Windfall” raises.

The American Wind Energy Association, meanwhile, calls “Windfall” badly biased, anti-wind propaganda that contains anti-wind groups’ “Greatest Hits of Misinformation” about wind power.

After viewing the movie, this reporter visited the Duke expo to ask company representatives about the claims made in the movie concerning the sounds wind turbines make, their effect on property values, and other effects, such as shadow “flicker.”  

Milton Howard is vice president of wind development for Duke. In an extended interview, he promised that the project would be carried out with the utmost concern for local residents and their quality of life, and pointed to the nine wind farms his company has already built in other parts of the country in the past few years.

Both Mr. Howard claims that their projects gain strong community acceptance, particularly once they are operating and people better understand the actual effects of properly designed and sited wind farms.

He also said Duke will work with local townships on zoning issues and that placement of wind turbines would be done in a professional, respectful manner that takes into account and addresses the issues raised in the movie.

“It’s been very positive,” Mr. Howard said of the general reception to his company’s proposal. “A lot of people just want to learn about this and what the facts are.”

Glenn Puit, a veteran investigative journalist, is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. MLUI is planning extensive coverage of the Gail Windpower Proposal, and currently is investigating claims made by its opponents about noise, property values, and other perceived effects of windpower development on local communities.

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