After two public hearing meetings and about five hours of public presentations, the Ellis County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the conditional-use permit and development plan for the proposed wind farm southwest of Hays following less than 20 minutes of discussion Wednesday night.
The recommendation of approval, which passed 6-1, now will pass to the Ellis County Commission for a final decision.
This closes the planning commission’s public hearing regarding this permit, which was filed by Competitive Power Ventures on March 3. The public hearing began March 28.
Barb Anderson, acting as chairwoman for the application, was the only opponent.
“I think that, under our purpose, our zoning regulations need to be considered to promote the health, safety, comfort and general welfare of the citizens of Ellis County,” Anderson said. “I think this needs to be considered extensively.”
A spectator requested a roll-call vote, which was not granted.
The other six commissioners voted in favor of the conditional use permit – public deliberation, however, was limited.
Planning commissioners heard two other zoning requests at the Ellis County Environmental Office at 7 p.m. The meeting reconvened at 9 p.m. in the Ellis County Fairgrounds Gold Building, and commissioners opted to recess to executive session immediately after calling the meeting to order.
“To start this session, I’d like to move for a recess into executive session for the purpose of deliberations regarding the application of Iberdrola for a conditional-use permit and that the open meeting resume at 9:30 here in the Gold Building,” said planning commissioner Charlie Rohr.
The Hays Daily News and other local media entities protested the motion, questioning compliance with the Kansas Open Meetings Act, and requested an explanation from Dennis Davidson, the county’s counselor for the application.
Davidson said Kansas law justified the closed session.
Provisions of the open meetings law do not apply to administrative bodies exercising “quasi-judicial” functions when the body is deliberating matters relating to a decision involving such quasi-judicial functions, according to the statute.
While it was stated that the executive session was for deliberations, all of the actual discussion was done in public, Anderson said this morning.
The executive session had been recommended by Davidson to discuss legal procedures, she said.
“There was nothing discussed as far as what was discussed outside,” Anderson said. “The attorney was just giving instruction on what had to be done for it to be legal.”
Anderson said Davidson also recommended that the commission’s discussion be done in public.
Even during public deliberation, however, debate was limited. Discussion was based on guidelines listed in Article 32 of the Ellis County Zoning regulations, which consist of 10 specific considerations – seven of which were deemed relevant to the Iberdrola application and opened for discussion by the acting chair.
Only two commissioners expressed an opinion on any one of these specific guidelines, and two considerations were passed over without any deliberation, though Anderson requested discussion several times.
One issue discussed was whether granting the permit could adversely affect property in the specified area.
“I think that this could very easily affect property values, and I think that needs to be taken into consideration,” Anderson said.
Planning commissioner Gene Bittel also acknowledged property values is a potential concern.
“In reading the editorial in The Hays Daily, I think a point was made that county commissioners should recommend setting aside, possibly, some money to address that issue,” Bittel said.
“We just don’t know what the property values are going to be five years from now or 10 years from now next to this project.”
After the guidelines had been addressed, the table opened for general discussion.
Anderson expressed a concern about the risk of the nearly 400-foot towers catching on fire. She asked commissioner Dick Klaus, who also serves as Ellis County Rural Fire chief, if the county would be able to fight such flames.
Klaus said there would be no need to fight a fire high in the air.
“All it is, is electrical wiring that can burn inside that. It will burn down,” Klaus said. “If it starts a grass fire – we fight them all the time. So I’m not worried about fires.”
Commissioner Gene Jacobs spoke in favor of renewable energy.
“I strongly feel that this is the right direction,” Jacobs said. “It might not be the right place, but it’s the right direction.”
Planning commissioner Charlie Rohr expressed concern about property rights.
“Last year, the zoning process got many people in the same room that were very concerned about their rights of their property, that they could do whatever they want on their ground and didn’t worry about the neighbors,” Rohr said. “Now many of these same people have made a 180-degree turn and say no, my neighbor can’t do what he wants on his property, and that concerns me.
“I’m a property right advocate, and that is part of why I voted no for zoning last year,” he said. “Not the whole reason, but I’m taking that into serious consideration.”
Bittel, who moved to approve the application and development plan, also spoke in favor of protecting landowners’ property rights.
“It seems like the people next to this project feel like they have a right to the land adjacent to them, and I guess that disturbs me,” Bittel said. “As somebody who grew up in Ellis County and the third generation who lived where I do, it disturbs me that somebody can treat my land as public land rather than land that has been in my family for generations.”
Bittel, who represents the Ellis community, said he felt it was his duty to support the project – the Ellis City Council has adopted a resolution in support of the proposal.
Bittel also recognized local concerns and offered recommendations to the Ellis County Commission in planning commission discussion, though the motion of approval was not amended to include these conditions.
He reiterated that the county commission should consider allocating funds to reimburse for potential property value deflation and recommended that a solid financial and decommissioning agreement be established.
“At the same time, this is a project that will bring in millions and millions of dollars to this county, and I just don’t feel like we can pass up this opportunity,” Bittel said. “If we say no to this opportunity, we’re going to say no to every development that comes to this county from now on. We just as well lock the doors so nobody will open them. And you can’t have future growth with that mindset.”
The discussions began after the executive session closed at 9:30 p.m. – the meeting adjourned at about 9:50 p.m.
As expected, public sentiment ran high throughout the meeting. Attendance, however, did not match that of earlier meetings – about 100 people had gathered to hear the deliberation.
Because the public comment portion of the hearing ended May 23, Wednesday’s discussion was meant only for the board. Anderson had to maintain order more than once when audience members applauded or challenged commissioners. There were two sheriff’s deputies on hand, and a near quarrel was broken up as spectators left the building.
Also as expected, approval was not the decision many in attendance had hoped to hear.
“I think I was disappointed at the discussion, or the lack of discussion,” said Pat Bittel, a member of the Ellis County Environmental Awareness Coalition, a group formed to protest the wind project. “I mean if they’re going to vote on something so controversial, they should at least have the professionalism to say why. The only one that spoke, really, besides Gene (Bittel), is the single woman and the one person who was voting against it. There was at least one commissioner that said absolutely nothing.”
Other spectators, however, left smiling. Iberdrola project manager Krista Gordon said she believes the decision is reflective of the county’s majority opinion.
“I was very pleased that it passed with as strong of a majority as it did,” Gordon said. “Six to one, I think, is a strong statement. I think this is a reflection of the view of Ellis County, I really do.”
By Kaley Lyon
6 June 2007
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