Giant windmills won’t appear in Calumet County for years – if ever. Just the same, their phantom silhouettes are a very real part of the county’s landscape.
“It’s like the Revolution and Civil War put together,” says Calumet County Supv. Don Schwobe, who has held one elected office or another in county or town government for 40 years.
Two out-of-state developers are scouting sites for three wind projects in Calumet County, where breezes clock 13 to 14 mph at 110 feet. The 100 or so 400-foot turbines would be the largest erected to date in Wisconsin, and the still unbuilt windmills have set off a battle over property rights – mostly between farmers and residential property owners.
“It’s just mean. Mean,” Schwobe said. “Back and forth between those who want towers and those who don’t. It’s a shame. Families against each other. Neighbors against each other.”
The conflict began about a year ago with a county wind energy ordinance some property owners thought too lax. It escalated over the summer when organized opposition began running full-page ads in the weekly Times-Journal, listing the names of property owners who might lease land to wind developers.
Then came the “Good neighbors don’t host 400-foot wind turbines” yard signs.
“When those signs went up, that was like punching us in the face,” Brothertown farmer Dan Lisowe said.
His farm is a test site for Midwest Wind Energy, one of the developers. Lisowe is one of a small group of property owners who could earn roughly $8,000 a year for every turbine their land can support.
“This farm has been in our family since the 1930s and we’ve farmed it the best we know how and been the best neighbors we know how.”
The opposition fears the industrial turbines will ruin the county’s rural character, and that local governments either don’t have the power or don’t have the will to stop them. Legislation the state passed in 2005 requires utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015. It also limited local governments’ regulatory authority to protecting health and safety.
“We believe we’re the only thing that stands between big companies and big government and the public,” Charlestown resident Ron Dietrich said. Dietrich is spokesman for the opposition group Calumet County Citizens for Responsible Energy, which has adopted Don Quixote as its icon.
“So that’s why we view ourselves as the underdogs. If we don’t become vocal and take action we’re going to be run over and bulldozed and people are going to wonder, ‘How did that happen?’”
The group helped persuade county officials in September to impose a 120-day moratorium on wind farm applications and permits while a committee evaluates the turbines’ potential impact on groundwater and neighbors’ health. Opponents cite studies that suggest flicker from turbines’ blades can trigger epileptic seizures and that noise from wind farms can affect human health.
“It’s one thing if a resident in the county wants to put a windmill to have some renewable energy for their residence,” said Ric Van Sistine, a Town of Woodville hobby farmer involved in another opposition group, Calumet County Advocates.
“But it’s a whole other thing when they talk about a 400-foot wind turbine with lights and moving parts. I believe there are serious health and safety issues that need to be considered above anything else.”
Town of Stockbridge farmer John Nadler thinks the health and safety protests are a ruse by the opposition group farmers often call “the one-acre people.”
“They bring the health and safety issue in and the water issue in,” he said. “They don’t want the windmills to spoil the view. I’m sorry, but they don’t own the view. That view was given to you by your neighbor. You didn’t buy the view.”
Nadler has talked to the wind farm developers, but he hasn’t made up his mind yet.
“I’m 53,” he said. “How long am I going to milk cows? It’s a pretty nice retirement check, and it more than likely would allow us to keep ownership of the land, to keep it in farming. Would they rather look at 40 more houses?”
Four wind farms currently operate in Wisconsin, according to Renew Wisconsin, a pro-wind nonprofit organization. Another 19 are in the development or negotiation stage. Virtually all have faced opposition, but the battle in Calumet County has been among the most hostile Michael Vickerman, Renew Wisconsin’s executive director, has witnessed.
“The thing that is really disturbs me is the lack of respect shown to the farmers in their community,” Vickerman said. “This is thinly-disguised class warfare, and it’s aimed at farmers who’ve worked the land for decades and decades.”
If anybody is interloping in Calumet County, it’s outsiders like Renew Wisconsin, the wind developers and the state and federal governments, Dietrich said.
“That implies that somehow the farmers were here first and working the land and these outsiders have come in and are telling them what they can and can not do with their land,” said Dietrich, who has lived in Charlestown for about 10 years.
“The people on either side of the issue are the same people genetically or historically who have worked the land themselves. We got to this point because a lot of the work by the wind company was done behind the scenes and the people they signed up we don’t believe had all the information.”
For the record, he added, vandals have defaced some of the opponents’ yard signs.
County Board Chairman Merlin Gentz has appointed a special committee composed of both proponents and opponents to evaluate studies on wind turbines and health.
“In the end, we’re still going to have regulations that govern the placement and operation of these facilities,” Gentz said. “I just want to make sure we have looked at all of the data and all the angles necessary to protect the health and safety of our people. In the end, I’m sure there are going to be people who are jumping for joy and people who will be very disappointed.”
Meanwhile, Lisowe’s farm is off-limits to some turkey hunters who’ve used his land in the past. He and some of the other large landowners are thinking about cutting off access this season to snowmobiles, too.
“We feel like doing it to make a point,” he said.
By Susan Squires
Post-Crescent staff writer
Ron Dietrich, spokesman for a group against putting wind turbines in Calumet County, has posted a sign on his neighbor’s property in Charlestown. Post-Crescent photo by Kirk Wagner
About the issue
Calumet County sits in the heart of a corridor in northeastern Wisconsin that has the highest potential for wind energy in the state. Developers want to find sites there for three wind turbine projects that would add the largest windmills to date in the state.
With a fiery debate raging, the county has temporarily halted the projects.
Wind farm moratorium
Calumet County on Sept. 18 imposed a 120-day moratorium on granting permits and accepting applications for wind farms so it can investigate:
# Groundwater impact
# Whether to lower the noise signature to 40 decibels
# Whether there should be a pre-project modeling of shadow and flicker within affected areas
# Whether a setback of 1150 feet from residences and property lines should be considered
# Whether the county should adopt a provision to protect the land and home values of current landowners and residents
A special committee is undertaking the research, and will make a recommendation to the County Board, which then may or may not decide to amend its ordinance. Committee members: Merlin Gentz, Bonnie Casper, Ron Dietrich, Elmer Hanke, Gary Hansel, Bill Hansen, Dan Hedrich, Mike Hofberger, Margie Nett, Sandy Popp and Dale Voskuil.
23 October 2007
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