BENZONIA — Some Benzie County residents launched a new weapon in their efforts to block rural wind turbine development: helicopters.
Turbines can't be built near heliports — lift-off and landing pads for helicopters — and experts believe turbine opponents' tactic could reverberate statewide, just as Michigan's alternative energy debate intensifies.
Benzie's Joyfield Township — once considered part of a four-township site for an industrial wind farm — could soon have up to eight licensed, stand-alone public heliports. It would give the rural farming township of 800 souls south of Benzonia more heliports than the rest of Michigan combined.
Joyfield's sudden emergence as a would-be heliport epi-center raised the level of skepticism among some township residents.
"It seems pretty fishy to me," said Susan Zenker, who lives near one of the proposed heliports. "I know all of the people who have applied, and as far as I know not one of them has a helicopter."
Zenker said she's not sure if she should worry that helicopters could soon spook her horses, or if she should be angry about an "unethical" sham designed to prevent her from leasing land for a wind turbine.
State officials acknowledge the heliports could prevent construction of wind turbines or any structure taller than 200 feet within almost a one-mile radius of the landing pads.
Factions continue to battle
For township residents it's just one more step in an ugly political battle that raged since Duke Energy proposed a system of 62 to 112 wind turbines with blades that reach almost 500 feet at the zenith of their arc in townships straddling the Benzie and Manistee county lines. Joyfield Township has no zoning code and its residents last year recalled three township trustees and replaced them with people opposed to Duke Energy's wind project.
Duke dropped the project in January, but the debate created two factions that continue to battle for control of the township.
"It's a contentious issue that's not going away gracefully," said Ted Wood, Joyfield Township clerk.
Jim Evans, a candidate for township trustee, appears to have received the first permit.
"There was a lot of frustration with the industrial wind turbines that Duke Energy wanted to bring into Joyfield Township ... and Jim (Evans) was just figuring out how he could protect his property from the intrusion," Wood said.
Evans could not be reached for comment. His wife, township planning commissioner Betsy Evans, is listed as the airport manager for the two permitted heliports on the Michigan Aeronautical Commission web site. She did not return repeated messages left on her cell phone.
Tom Hart, who unsuccessfully ran for township supervisor for the pro-wind faction, said proponents knew about Evans' plans, but were "shocked" when they discovered seven more heliport proposals in Joyfield and one on the border inside adjacent Blaine Township.
"We were shocked by the double standard, that we were expected to tell them our intentions to lease land for wind turbines, but they can do this under darkness ... and not tell their neighbors," Hart said. "We really have grown weary of these tricks and gimmicks. It's not pretty."
The state does not require any public notice before licensing a heliport.
Myron Burzynski constructed a heliport on property he owns on Six Mile Road. Burzynski said he did it as a side business to promote tourism.
"I'm working strictly with one pilot," Burzynski said. "I can't speak for the others."
Burzynski said he's not part of the anti-wind faction and talked to his neighbors about it in advance. Burzynski was unable to provide details about his heliport, such as when it was licensed, its exact location, or if it had been used this summer. He then declined to answer further questions.
The success of Joyfield's anti-wind faction could have serious consequences for wind energy in Michigan, said Stanley "Skip" Pruss, a former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic development who now runs a renewable energy consulting firm.
"It's a fascinating tactic," Pruss said. "It's certainly another impediment that would have to be overcome. Wind energy applications could be thwarted around the state."
Obtaining a public heliport permit is neither complicated nor expensive. It involves a one-time $25 application fee, a flat piece of grass and a drawing based on an official, U.S. geographical survey. The owner also has to provide a phone for public use; parking area, sanitary facility, and sign on the road. The sanitary facility could be an outhouse or portable toilet.
The state also won't check to see if anyone utilizes the heliport, said Rick Carlson, manager of the transport and safety section for the commission. Once the remaining seven pass inspection the permits will be granted.
Carlson said there are some in his office who believe it is "unfortunate" their regulations are being used to thwart a different program, but they have to follow their code of regulations and license a facility that meets the minimum requirements.
"Of course when these laws and rules were established nobody even thought of (wind turbines) or even cell towers," Carlson said. "Maybe it needs review, but that's not for me to say."