What constitutes protection of public health and safety for siting and operating 400-foot industrial wind turbines with capacities of 1.65 to 2 megawatts?
That question stirred lots of activity and animosity in Calumet County in 2007. There are squabbles within families and neighborhood friendships have ended. There are landowners who want to obtain leases for siting wind turbines, persons who want very tight restrictions on them, and outright opponents of wind turbines.
In late 2005, the Calumet County Board approved a wind energy ordinance that was modeled on Wisconsin statute 66.0401. There wasn’t much public reaction at the time.
Then Illinois-based energy development companies began to size up Calumet County for two large wind energy projects and a small one of five turbines. Once representatives of Midwest Energy and EcoEnergy identified siting possibilities based on the county’s ordinance, public opposition brewed.
Meetings sponsored by the wind turbine opponents attracted hundreds of people. Speakers (either in person or by telecom) from Canada, Maine, New York, Maryland and Kewaunee County shared their experiences following wind turbine installations in their localities.
Among the common themes were unacceptable noise levels that disrupted sleeping and other activities, shadowing and flickering inside residences, health problems and attitude changes in their families, loss of property value, interference with television reception and Internet services, and refusal by wind energy system owner/operators to deal with complaints.
Concerns specific to Calumet County included protection of groundwater in a very sensitive geological area, flight corridors for medical helicopters between Chilton and Fox Cities hospitals and sheriff and state patrol microwave relay pathways.
Members of Calumet Citizens for Responsible Energy argued that the ordinance setbacks of 1,000 feet from residences and frequently occupied facilities and of 1.1 times the turbine height from property lines would endanger public health and safety. Project proponents see those objections as making wind energy system siting in the county very difficult or economically unfeasible.
In August, the County Board was flooded with more than 100 letters. County supervisors were deluged with phone calls at home; dozens of letters from opponents and supporters of wind turbines were printed in local newspapers.
More than 100 people went on a bus tour to a wind energy project near Princeton, Ill., and the opponents and those seeking major changes in county ordinance placed many full-page newspaper ads.
The County Board, which has been sharply and closely split on the issue, then imposed a 120-day moratorium on wind energy permitting and construction.
This moratorium will expire Jan. 17.
The Town of Chilton, where EcoEnergy has been active, formed a citizens advisory committee to propose an ordinance to the town board. County board chairman Merlin Gentz convened an ad hoc group (four opponents, four supporters and three persons neutral on wind energy) to consider changes to the county ordinance.
Chilton’s committee took a novel approach by emphasizing noise levels (limit of 5 decibels above the previous ambient sound at “sensitive receptors” or places where humans live or often gather) rather than specified setback distances from residences, property lines or roadways as the major criterion for turbine siting. How sound levels would be determined and monitored is an open question.
At its December meeting, the Town of Chilton board did not vote on the 28-page proposed ordinance plus a longer appendix presented to it in October. The board has been reduced to two working members on the issue because one supervisor owns land on which a turbine might be sited.
With a one-vote margin on some of its proposals, the county ad hoc group prepared a series of proposals – all of them more restrictive than the current ordinance – for the Jan. 15 County Board meeting. One item calls for 1,800-foot setbacks from sensitive receptors – a distance Gentz said he might not support.
Calumet County planning director Julie Heuvelman says a construction permit would be granted to any wind energy system applicant under the terms of the ordinance in effect at the time (provided it is not during a moratorium).
Regardless of what the County Board decides on Jan. 15, there have been hints of a court suit by whatever faction feels it is aggrieved by those decisions.
In the meantime, We Energies is constructing a wind energy system – scheduled to go online in less than six months – of 88 turbines with a rated capacity of 145 megawatts (electric power for about 40,000 residences) in the two northeast Fond du Lac County towns (Calumet and Marshfield) which adjoin Calumet County.
About the author: Ray Mueller is a resident of Chilton and writes for the Wisconsin State Farmer, which is published in Waupaca. He is the former editor of the Sheboygan Falls News.
1 January 2008
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