“Corrosive Communities”: How A Facebook Fight Over Wind Power Predicts the Future of Local Politics in America
Bad vibrations abound.Many of them are obvious: We can sense them, measure the damage they do, try to counteract or avoid them. Others exist in a range outside the limit of normal human perception. Most of us go about our lives oblivious to these. But sometimes a person gains a new kind of awareness, one that gives form and name to the hidden forces in the air, in this country, at this moment. Such a person may become obsessed, tormented, desperate. Such a person may feel obligated to act.
Erik and Chantelle Benko live in rural Sidney Township, Michigan, about 45 minutes northeast of Grand Rapids. They moved there in 2016, to a ramshackle ranch on 40 rolling acres, where they planned to breed American quarter horses and set up an equine-assisted psychotherapy practice. Getting the place in shape took several hundred thousand dollars, they said. But it was worth it to raise their two boys in a place where people knew each other and treated each other with respect, where kids got the first day of hunting season off from school, where you couldn’t pump gas without making friends with the clerk. The first night in his new home, the sky was so clear, Erik Benko said, “you felt like you could reach out and grab a handful of stars.”
One day in October 2020, a post on the Facebook page for the Sidney Township Neighborhood Watch seized the Benkos’ attention. Jeffrey Lodholtz, a member of the township planning commission, had published a screenshot of a text message from Jed Welder, a local farmer and township trustee. Like hundreds of rural and agricultural communities across the country, Sidney Township, open, gusty, and short on cash, was receiving interest from a wind energy company. Wind farms can bring municipal tax benefits, construction jobs, and payments for fallow or devalued cropland. The planning commission was considering a new law to set standards to encourage development.
“Have a vested interest in this project,” Welder wrote. “I’ve already gotten my first check.”
“There are multiple things that need to be changed before we can just implement it,” Lodholtz responded.
“So how long before you think we can get this thing signed!?” Welder asked.
Wind energy companies lease land from individual owners and pay royalties based on the electricity generated by the turbines they build there. As Erik Benko read it, a township trustee was pressuring the planning commission to approve a development for his own profit. Other members of the Facebook group saw it this way, too. The comment section filled up with dozens of residents — dozens being a significant number in a township with a population of roughly 2,500 — outraged over this “vested interest.”
For the Benkos, the post was a window onto a world they didn’t know existed: self-dealing and cold. A big corporation, Apex Clean Energy, had been skulking around their new home “in the shadows,” as Erik Benko said he came to realize, “wining and dining township officials” and making plans for the land. The Benkos began to educate themselves, and what they found was infuriating.
“If you google some of those terms,” Erik Benko said, “this whole seedy underbelly opens up.”