Fletcher: Keep the zoning rules simple

One of the foremost rules for the chief executive officer of any organization to follow is that tenet known by the acronym: KIS – Keep It Simple. The message to the adherent of this principle is that complicated things of any kind are harder to implement, maintain, or operate than simpler structures. A leader may apply this principle to regulations, operations, construction, or any of a host of other activities. A good example of its use happened to me just a couple of weeks ago.

At our company we are required by state law to collect money from our customers to subsidize solar and wind power. The amount of money collected from each customer is regulated by this statute and passed on to the owners of large solar array and large wind farms located in the state. In our case, we are so small that we buy renewable energy credits from our principal energy supplier who then does the paperwork and passes on the money to the producers of renewable energy. It’s just a tax we collect for the state and is really no different than the Michigan Sales Tax except it is earmarks for a special purpose. If we collect the amount as a charge in the power bill then the state officials can say it is not a tax but it has the same effect as a tax.

We have to collect the tax and pass it on somehow to the solar and wind power producers. I would prefer to have the money stay here in the northeast part of the state because it’s about $500,000 each year and it was ours in the first place. However, we don’t have very much wind and the sun is sometimes not seen for days at certain times of the year. We aren’t a prime area for renewable energy.

Some years ago, we set up an anemometer tower out at the end of North Point and collected wind data for 14 months. The choice of location was due to the concept there are lake breezes that may not come on shore and North Point is geographically situated for our prevailing northwesterly flow of wind. There wasn’t enough wind to proceed with a project.

However, there is an onshore wind almost every afternoon in the City of Alpena due to the unique setting of Thunder Bay coupled with convective afternoon heating of the land mass. The differential of temperatures of the air over the water vis a vis the air over the land causes a flow in toward shore. I thought we should measure this to see if there was enough wind to operate a standard wind turbine at our west dock site between DPI and Lafarge.

As chance would have it, Leslie Fusina DuBois who used to sail with me has a master’s degree in meteorology. Her present job is to evaluate sites for wind turbines. I contacted her to see how much an extrapolation of the date collected at the river mouth lighthouse to the normal height of 100 meters would cost. It was a pretty reasonable amount and we signed a contract on a Monday afternoon. On Monday, one of our people picked up a copy of the city zoning ordinance that has a section on wind turbines.

A thorough reading of this section caused us to call Leslie on Tuesday morning to cancel our contract.

There were sections of the ordinance with which we could be in disagreement. First, the wind has to be studied over a period of one year and must be viable in the city’s opinion. Second, even though we might have acquired permission of the surrounding property owner to erect the tower as its height would be a standard 100 meters, the zoning calls for a special variance in this case. Third, a variance is needed because of the height. Fourth, if a variance is needed for height then the operator must submit documentation to the planning commission to approve a rate of return for the project without saying whether the rate of return is based on return from equity or from sales; there is no indication of what rate of return would satisfy the commission. Fifth, there are maximum noise levels mentioned at 65 dB(A) at the property lines or a maximum increase of 5 dB(A) if the existing ambient noise level is higher than 65.

I thought that we didn’t want the City setting the rate of return for any of our projects and the necessity of a half-dozen or so variances in order to advance would be impossible to obtain. We canceled the contract with Leslie. The wind tower would have been an investment of about $3 million of tax base and we could have kept some of those RECs at home.

Conversely, after the college got the rezoning last month to industrial on the corner of Woodward and Hamilton, we already have had one shopper who is interested. This really isn’t about anything more than structure. If you have an open and welcoming zoning structure for industry, then industry gets interested in your area very quickly.

Remember the KIS Principle.

Perhaps the new City Planner will simplify the zoning.