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Wind swindle of Ellis County  

This letter was submitted by Keith Pfannenstiel to the Hays Daily News March, 5 2008

It is with some hesitation that I write this letter. As a local business owner I realize success of my business is in part dependent on the public credibility of the proprietor. Given the divisiveness of the wind development in the community, many business owners have decided not to risk speaking out in spite of their personal beliefs on the issue. That being said, I believe it is more important to take a stand for my community than to take a chance in letting the improper acts of some potentially harm us all.

As many know, I have been vocal concerning the inadequacy of the zoning rules to protect the county and those living with a potential wind project. In previous letters I have outlined many of the specific problems that plague the regulations. Until recently, though I knew there were problems, I simply could not grasp why so little had been done to regulate this industry or to protect the county and its citizens. In the effort to understand, I (along with others) began to document the involvement of county representatives and the calendar of events that brought wind developers to Ellis County.

What we discovered is disturbing. It portrays a government interested on profiting the few politically connected instead of looking out for the interests of the county as a whole. Before I continue however, I want this to be perfectly clear; this information is raised neither as an objection to wind development in Ellis County nor as an indictment of the many honest landowners in each project area. In addition, this is not intended as a statement against zoning. If done openly and with the interest of all of Ellis County in mind, zoning is a protection for everyone. If however, it appears that the process is manipulated to profit a few at the expense of others, then zoning must be revisited to give all its citizens protection.

Following are many of the documented facts that anyone can obtain with a little effort. Though there are undoubtedly a few minor errors in this documentation, the main points presented are accurate and verifiable. This is only a partial list, but it still paints a picture that is nearly impossible to deny.

2003
Sept. 15 – The first memorandum of easement agreements were recorded at the county courthouse by landowners hoping to site turbines on their properties.

Oct. 10 – An email was received by Ellis County Commissioners Vernon Berens, Dennis Pfannenstiel and Chris Channel from David Yearout, a member of the governor’s task force for wind development in Western Kansas announcing Mr. Yearout’s offer to make a presentation on county wide zoning.

2004
Feb. 28 – David Yearout discussed county wide zoning at the county commissioner meeting. Among those present was Lance Russell.

2005
May 9 – Resolution No. 2005-15 County commissioners create a zoning planning commission. Nominated to serve on the board were Jo Kraus and Lance Russell as co-chairs, Rich Weber, Gene Bittel, Dick Klaus, Jim Scheck, Leo Dortzwieler, Charlie Rohr and Kent Laas. Kent Laas resigned within a few months after being appointed and Gene Jacobs assumed Rich Weber’s position a few months following that.

May 23 – First meeting of the Joint Planning Commission. A few days later, Jo Kraus addresses Ellis County Commissioners while serving on the zoning board and states she represents the landowners with easements for wind development and petitions support from commissioners. Meetings with Krista Jo Gordon and landowners are conducted at Dana and Jo Kraus’s home.

Aug. 18 – Jo Kraus approaches city officials and informs she represents landowners with easements.

Aug. 29 – County commissioners Berens, Pfannenstiel and Channel send approval letter for 50-200 turbines and guarantees approval.

High Plains Journal publishes article on the possibility of a wind farm west of Hays and quotes former Ellis County commissioner Harold Kraus (father of Lance Russell), stating he has leased land for wind turbines and relates his dream of seeing all ridgelines in western Kansas covered with wind turbines and exporting power to more populated areas.

2006
June 6 – HDN reports Ellis County public “does not want zoning”

June 28 – Joint Planning Commission votes to approve zoning, despite overwhelming opposition expressed by the public in attendance. Jo Kraus, Lance Russell, Gene Jacobs, Gene Bittel, Dick Klaus, Jim Scheck, were in favor with Leo Dorzweiler and Charlie Rohr against. Charlie Rohr later explains that he now supports zoning, but he is also in favor of allowing landowners to do whatever they wish with their land.

June 30 – The terms of Jo Kraus and Gene Bittel expire. Gene Bittel is reappointed, Jo Kraus is not, but continues participation through emails to commissioners, county administrator, and county attorney.

Aug. 28 – Ellis Co. Commission adopts County wide zoning regulations with a unanimous vote

2007
Jan 21 – Perry Henman takes office after defeating Chris Channel in the only open election for a seat on the county commission. Many cite support for zoning as responsible for Channel’s defeat.

March 3 – Application for wind farm is filed.

March 10 – Leo Dorzweiler resigns as zoning board member citing “unscrupulous tactics” in the zoning of Ellis County and a “dictatorship approach.”

March 28 – Hearing for wind farm with zoning board. Krista Jo Gordon states wind developers are only interested in zoned counties.

April 9 – County attorney resigns from wind farm counsel, citing he has a conflict of interest.

May 18 – An article in the HDN states that wind specific regulations were drafted by the Ellis County Public Works Department, the county counselor who resigned for conflict of interest, and the wind developer. Jo Kraus makes the motion to adopt the wind regulations totaling 1 ½ pages, despite the fact that David Yearout proposed 26 pages.

May 21 – HDN reports with less than a year after implementation of county wide zoning, commissioners to vote on wind farm.

May 23 – Dana Kraus, husband of Jo Kraus, publicly states he collected the wind data from the anemometer towers for the developer, creating yet another potential of conflict of interest for his wife as a zoning board member.

June 6 – Ellis County zoning board votes 6-1 to support the conditional use permit with Gene Bittel, Dick Klaus, Gene Jacobs, Charlie Rohr, Kirk Dickinson and Jim Scheck voting in favor with Barb Anderson dissenting. Lance Russell abstained, stating a conflict of interest due to family ties.

Gene Bittel admits to the audience at the zoning planning meeting that he wants turbines on his land north of Ellis.

September 3 – Vernon Berens and Dennis Pfannenstiel, the two commissioners responsible for appointing the Z&P board and signing the letter of approval a year and a half prior, vote in favor of the conditional use permit with Henman (the only commission member not involved from the beginning) dissenting.
Berens states his vote is based on the recommendation of the zoning board
Pfannenstiel states his vote is for his view of progress.
Henman states he cannot support a project that places the county and its residents at risk due to grossly inadequate zoning regulations.

October 1 – Henman suggests a moratorium on new applications citing a need to develop a comprehensive plan and revisit zoning regulations for industrial wind projects to insure the county and local residents are not harmed. Berens and Pfannenstiel refuse to support a moratorium to revisit wind regulations or develop a comprehensive plan.

Residents question why a comprehensive plan is opposed by two commissioners since the Ellis County zoning regulations mention such a plan numerous times throughout the document and the vast majority of county planners state a comprehensive plan should precede zoning.

Zoning board members also refuse to consider a comprehensive plan.

Lance Russell has only recused himself for one vote despite being involved from the beginning with documented conflicts of interest. He continues to participate in the wind project as a co chair of the zoning and planning board, citing he has no land in project area and no conflict of interest.

Jan. 25 – Records from courthouse show Lance Russell obtained a home mortgage and 18.9 acres that is currently leased to Iberdrola (the wind developer) adjoining approximately 300 acres of his father’s land.

February 18 – HDN reports that the wind developers have been working on two additional projects, one north of Ellis and one in the southwest corner of Ellis County

The wind developer advises Commissioner Henman that although his land north of Ellis is not being considered for turbine placement, it is in the middle of one of the additional projects. Gene Bittel owns ground bordering Commissioner Henman’s land indicating his land is in the project. In addition, landowners in the southwest corner of Ellis County confirm that they have been approached by the wind developer to sign leases. Though the project area has not been publicly disclosed, zoning and planning board members Dick Klaus and Charlie Rohr own land in the area under consideration for wind development. Since there is no requirement to file leases at the County courthouse prior to an application, it is impossible to determine which land owners (including zoning board members) have been working with the wind developer and/or have signed leases for development.

Commissioners Vernon Berens, Dennis Pfannenstiel and Chris Channel appointed a majority (five out of the nine) of zoning and planning board members with a potential to financially profit from wind development in Ellis County. (Lance Russell, Gene Bittel, Jo Kraus, Dick Klaus and Charlie Rohr) These same individuals were responsible for compiling and recommending county wide zoning and the zoning regulations themselves. Some of them were actively working with the wind developer from the beginning, even as they performed these duties. Furthermore, these same individuals continue to serve on the board and make decisions regarding wind regulations and projects.

In spite of limited record keeping throughout the process, we show a clear and convincing calendar of events providing evidence that the process may have been violated. We have also collected other “off the record” documents such as potentially incriminating emails that are available for a comprehensive investigation.

Knowing what we have now presented, would the public have condoned these zoning board members taking part in the drafting and approval of only a page and a half of zoning regulations for wind development? Was it not apparent to the County commissioners appointing these members that this action opens the county up to allegations of corruption and cronyism? Could the zoning board members themselves really not identify the potential conflict of interest? Whatever the case, the county clerk states that not a single one of the members of the zoning and planning board have filed a conflict of interest form as required by law (K.S.A. 75-4301).

Regardless of one’s position on wind development, the citizens of Ellis County should be seriously concerned over the many ostensible conflicts of interest and apparent abuses of the political process for personal profit. The county attorney has been notified of these infractions and has stated his intention to look into the matter. If that process stalls, we must demand nothing short of a grand jury investigation to determine the depth of this suspected delinquency. To allow this process to continue without resolving these issues may result the county facing an expensive legal battle with no certainty whether or not these problems will eventually result in the entire zoning process being ruled invalid.

Undoubtedly the wind developers, implicated members of the political process and some blinded by profit will cry foul. They will most likely assert their innocence and question the motives of those seeking answers. I for one hope they are right, that there has been no illegal activity and everything has been “above the table”. If that is the case, I would also hope that they would join us in calling for this investigation to clear their names and vindicate the process. Unfortunately until a comprehensive investigation has been undertaken, in the minds of the public it will always remain as it seems, an unethical and possibly illegal manipulation of the political process for personal gain at the expense of everyone in this county.

Ellis County Environmental Awareness Coalition

14 March 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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