A Mighty Wind Blows in Benzie and Manistee

REGION – A proposal by the nation's largest energy company to erect more than 100 utility-scale wind turbines in Benzie and Manistee Counties might hold the promise for an economic boost to the rural region – and further the state's efforts to become a leader in the nation's emerging clean energy sector.

Duke Energy, a Fortune 500 company based in Charlotte, N.C, is proposing the wind project – which it describes as a $360 million investment – for Benzie's Blaine and Joyfield Townships and Manistee's Pleasanton and Arcadia Townships.

Many residents in the two counties are receiving the proposal, known as the Gail Windpower Project, enthusiastically.

"We are majorly supportive of this," says 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, told about 300 people gathered for a wind discussion at the Garden Theater in Frankfort 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," says 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."

The townships that would be home to the Gail Windpower Project are currently sorting through their local zoning ordinances to discern what can and can't be allowed for wind development in their communities. That zoning conundrum has led to a new "Understanding Wind Initiative: Education and Technical Assistance about Wind Energy for Residents, Communities, Businesses, and Others in Benzie and Manistee Counties."

The community process is intended to provide expertise on wind-related zoning issues that largely fall outside the experience of local officials. This includes properly protecting residents from turbine sound; defending wildlife and the environment from significant harm; and maintaining the health, safety, and welfare of nearby residents.

Duke claims the output is without the polluting, climate-changing emissions of coal burning. Its proposal calls for the nearly 500-foot windmills to 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 daylong open house at Benzie Central High School's gymnasium earlier this year, 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, Dukehas not yet 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-foot 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. March, who is the fourth generation of his family to operate the 263-acre beef-cattle farm, says it's too early to know whether, how many, and where turbines would be erected on his property.

However, he says, 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," says 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 says. "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 say they are very concerned about the proposal. Alice Mummey, of Manistee County, 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 says the idea of a major industrial wind farm in her own county has given her pause.

"The more I find out, the less enthused I am," Mummey says. "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."

Mummey is referring to temporary moratoriums on processing zoning applications for wind turbine permits that were recently enacted in the townships.

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.

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 says Duke will work with local townships on zoning issues and that placement of wind turbines would be done in a professional, respectful manner.

"It's been very positive," Howard says of the general reception to his company's proposal. "A lot of people just want to learn about this and what the facts are." BN