Looking out on the horizon and seeing tall wind turbines strung across Gillespie County’s hills is still being considered by some here as a very distinct possibility.
That’s because a second alternative power company has reportedly picked up where AES Wind Generation left off in August when it abandoned its proposed utility project.
Hilliard Energy, a Midland-based company, has reportedly been busy in recent weeks, contacting landowners in Gillespie and neighboring Llano and Mason counties, seeking signatures on legal agreements that would further the process of establishing a wind farm in this area.
The company is being suspected by some of trying to “fly in under the radar” by having landowners sign confidentiality agreements that would prevent them from talking to even their neighbors about the wind energy project.
But, based on the responses of concerned citizens who met Thursday, some Fredericksburg neighbors do talk with each other about the proposed project. And, those of them who are opposed to a wind farm are growing even more fearful of this second company’s plans.
The reason for the increased anxiety this time around? Because where AES Wind Generation was once interested in primarily the northern section of the county stretching between RM 965 and U.S. Highway 87, Hilliard has a much broader map in mind, according to those attending the afternoon meeting held by the group dubbed “Save Our Scenic (SOS) Hill Country Environment”.
Dennis Kusenberger, owner of ReMax Town & Country, Realtors, led the gathering in the first-floor Chase Bank meeting room of some 22 local residents who took turns sharing what they said they knew about Hilliard’s recent activities on the power project as well as discussing any strategies they had for informing others on the pros and cons of such a development.
The group recently published a privately-funded full-page ad in the Standard-Radio Post and has been featured on radio spots in an attempt to air what they consider to be the educational information about the detrimental effects that a wind project here might have, such as lowering property values, decreasing the local tourism industry and having a negative impact on wildlife.
“Preservation of wildlife” and its keen “environmental stewardship” were cited as the main reasons why the California-based AES company discontinued pursuing a large-scale wind energy project in this area last month.
Exactly what Hilliard’s position on the issue might be is, at last report, unknown.
Attempts to contact Hilliard by this newspaper Tuesday were unsuccessful, and Gillespie County Economic Development Commission Director Greg Snelgrove reported at Thursday’s meeting that his previous phone calls had also failed to elicit a response because Hilliard has “great gate keepers” and is “absolutely stonewalling us.”
As far as legal documents being filed at the courthouse, nothing from Hilliard has thus far reportedly shown up. According to a suspicion aired at Thursday’s meeting, the company will probably get as large a stack of those agreements as possible before filing them so as not to draw attention to itself.
Without any kind of response on record from Hilliard and without a communicative relationship with the company, the SOS Hill Country Environment group said it will continue to take the approach of warning local landowners to be cautious about entering into any sort of legal agreements.
“They are being fed ‘pie in the sky’ kind of stuff,” said attorney Norm Nevins who added, “We need to educate people on this instead of just attacking the people who want to do it.”
Consequently, the group on Thursday outlined its key position points and committed itself to mobilizing as many people as possible to attend a subsequent Gillespie County Commissioners Court meeting Monday morning.
At that regular session, dozens were on hand to hear landowner Billy Teague address the commissioners’ court, stating the group’s opposition to a windmill utility project and requesting that the court approve a resolution promising that the county wouldn’t offer any financial incentives, tax abatements or approve any modifications to county roads to accommodate such wind farm developments.
In the meantime, by-laws for a non-profit organization are being drafted, and plans are being made to elect leadership for the group.
It was agreed at Thursday’s meeting that such organization will be vital as members set about educating others.
Learning more about the topic was one of the reasons cited by several members of the Gillespie County Farm Bureau for attending the SOS-called gathering.
Farm Bureau representative Wallace Klussmann said that organization’s delegates were in attendance in an “investigatory” capacity so that they could relay the information to their membership. Klussmann is a rancher in Gillespie, Llano and Washington counties in addition to being a member of the Natural Resource Foundation of Texas’ Board of Directors, an executive board member of the Texas Wildlife Association, a retired professor emeritus from Texas A&M University and a fish, wildlife, environmental and rural land management consultant.
“We respect the fact that it is a private property issue. But it is a tremendously ‘big picture’ and is also a significant community issue,” Klussmann said. “You really need to know what you’re doing before you step into it.”
“Our stance would have to be: ‘eyes wide open’ at this point,” he added. “If you have eyes wide open, you will probably make the right decision.”
The Farm Bureau is all for private property rights unless it adversely affects neighbors, added Ray Tschirhart, another at the meeting.
Some at Thursday’s meeting stressed that it is important for members to express their concerns to their elected leaders at the federal level since it is the federal tax abatements that make the wind turbines profitable for the alternative energy companies.
The abatements last for 10 years after which the companies reportedly may abandon the turbines, leaving landowners with an eyesore of a turbine in disrepair or with the major expense of having a 300-400-foot tower and 500 yards of cement in the ground removed.
“They are not stand-alone profitable,” one person said, continuing, “These are not profitable projects. They are government paid for and then left easily.”
Another point mentioned was the potentially adverse impact a line of wind turbines on the hills surrounding Fredericksburg would have on a tourism industry in this part of the scenic Texas Hill Country.
And, further still, “A key issue here is the landowners,” another spokesman said. “When they are struggling to make a living and looking for money – they don’t care about chambers of commerce. They need informational points that help them think in the long term.”
While receiving a royalty payment might help a rancher save his property for his children, another said, one has to question what the value of that land will be with wind turbines on it.
“Land values are going to go down the moment someone even signs an option on paper,” said Brett Bruster, a local realtor. “It’s already probably having a negative effect.”
Also noted was that the prospect of a wind turbine project going in next door is something that realtors will have to begin disclosing to potential clients.
“No one ever wanted to buy a house within viewing distance of those turbines,” Bruster added. The SOS group made plans to formulate a new map of the county in order to track Hilliard’s movements, including which landowners have been contacted and which ones have signed agreements.
“We need to keep pounding on this because they are out there every week getting people to sign up,” Kusenberger said.
And, he added, everyone at the meeting needed to contact their neighbors or as many landowners as possible.
Pointing out that since he is a real estate agent, Kusenberger said “it will mean more” coming from others because people might have the perception that a real estate agent is stating a case because he has a monetary stake in the issue.
“But, we all have a monetary stake in this,” Kusenberger emphasized.
26 September 2007
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