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Living With A Wind Farm

Peter Payette

Plans for wind farms along the coast of Lake Michigan had people up in arms from Benzie County to Mason County a few years ago. One did get built near Ludington, and the county is still working through the difficulties of living with it.

Windmills have been spinning in Mason County since late 2012. There are more than 50, owned by Consumers Energy. There is still a sharp debate about the impact they have, but there are also signs people have warmed up to the towering machines.

There’s a tour guide now offering tours of the Lake Winds Energy Park. He claims to offer the only such tour in Michigan and you even get to touch a tower.

Kathy Jo Kvalvaag owns a bed a breakfast in Ludington, The Inn at Ludington, and understands why visitors go out there.

“I think it’s just beautiful,” she says.

Kvalvaag also has a farmhouse she’ll rent you for a week, and it’s inside the wind park. She does not make any money from the windmill near her vacation rental.

She says the sound doesn’t bother her renters. She figures they’d be more likely to complain about a noisy tractor. She describes the sound as a gentle “whoosh.”

Shut them down!

Not everyone agrees. Complaints filed with Mason County use words like “penetrating” to describe the sound. One man compared it to a jet plane and claimed the noise causes vertigo. That’s a dizziness caused by a sensation of motion.

Last spring, the county tested the sound levels near a few turbines and found that most made more noise than the law allows.

At a recent planning commission meeting, Evelyn Bergaila asked why the turbines haven’t been shut down, since the county found they were out of compliance. Bergaila is one of the neighbors involved in a lawsuit against Consumers Energy.

She read part of the zoning ordinance to commissioners, which says anyone in violation of the rules will be told to stop.

“This looks pretty clear. It’s pretty black and white,” said Bergaila, describing the rule. “‘Immediately,’ it says.”

Immediate resolution unlikely

Mason County has told Consumers Energy to fix the problems, but the utility has challenged the county at every step, insisting there is no violation.

Consumers did submit a plan for dealing with the noise, but it took a court order to make that happen.

This appears to be the first time a county in Michigan has issued a violation for noisy windmills. Resolving the dispute will not be simple because measuring sound is complex. The noise made by the turbines has to be distinguished from other ambient noise and the wind plays a role.

That’s a key issue in the legal dispute between Mason County and Consumers Energy. The company claims the county reached erroneous conclusions because its acoustic experts didn’t factor in the background noise.

A judge could hear arguments in the case this summer.

On a more positive note, everyone seems to agree the problem of shadow flicker has been solved. If a turbine casts spinning shadows on a nearby home beyond a certain number of hours, it now shuts off automatically.

Mason County heard a new kind of complaint recently, about glare. Glare is not mentioned in the zoning ordinance. At the planning meeting, one of the commissioners said he had seen this effect too, around sunset. He said the center of the windmill looked like a strobe light.

Peter Payette is the Executive Director of Interlochen Public Radio.