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Blowin’ out of proportion? Company, Trempealeau County disagree about wind ordinance

Trempealeau County believes a threat of a lawsuit over wind turbines might be a bunch of hot air.

A little more than a month after the Trempealeau County Board passed one of the most restrictive wind ordinances in the country, the developers seeking to build a wind farm have now told the board to revise or they’ll sue.

A Madison, Wis., law firm representing AgWind Energy Partners sent the county board a letter Jan. 14 stating the county’s zoning ordinance that governs the placement, height and noise of wind turbines is illegal because it contradicts the state’s model in several ways.

Zoning director Kevin Lein said the letter is threatening, but has no substance.

“The consensus was to let it go for now,” Lein said. “We might change our mind.”

A county advisory committee charged with writing a wind ordinance based on health and safety looked at “several” research documents to come up with its recommendation, Lein said. He said neither the developer nor the law firm provided any research to support reducing the restrictions.

AgWind approached the county almost 16 months ago requesting to build a wind farm. County residents balked at the idea of living in the shadows of turbines and signed petitions, citing low-frequency noise and other possible health concerns.

The county board wrestled with the ordinance for 14 months – enacting moratoriums in order to do more research. The policy was revised two times before the board appointed an advisory committee.

The board voted 10-6 Dec. 17 to accept the committee’s recommendation: A 16-page ordinance that required turbines over 150 feet high – most commercial wind towers are about 300 feet – to be at least a mile from the nearest homes and a half-mile from neighboring property lines. Additional setbacks keep turbines away from roads, railroads, wildlife refuges and other places.

AgWind managing director Jim Naleid said the ordinance stifles commercial wind energy – effectively banning it.

“It is our opinion that the ordinance Trempealeau County adopted is illegal,” Naleid said. “It violates the state law.”

The ordinance’s restrictions make sure there is no location in the county where a commercial turbine can be placed – let alone a wind farm, Naleid said.

The ordinance does allow compromises and contracts – called mitigation – with residents but AgWind believes that will cause increased project costs and compromise a wind farm’s efficiency.

The county board referred the letter to Trempealeau County Corporation Counsel LaVerne Michalek. He said the board will likely have a new land management department or the advisory committee decide what, if any, reaction is needed.

Lein, who will be working under the new land management department, wasn’t surprised at the letter – he said he expected it. The zoning department receives several letters like that a year, he said.

He said the “law” that Naleid cites is Wisconsin’s draft model ordinance, which serves only as guide to counties. Lein expected the state will eventually intervene and set its own regulations, despite all Trempealeau County’s hard work.

“Topography is different throughout the state,” Lein said. “It’s hard to regulate something on a state-wide basis.”

By Amber Dulek

Winona Daily News

26 January 2008