In a dramatic moment during a tense meeting in Boardman Tuesday night, Arman Kluehe stood up and began to drop $20 bills into a pile.
“How much will it take to buy you so we can break the noise limit?” he asked the crowd.
Several people in the room – close neighbors of the Willow Creek Wind Project – murmured their approval. In January, three of them turned down Invenergy, Willow Creek’s parent company, when it offered to buy noise easements on their land.
Kluehe does not live near a wind farm, yet. He and his wife moved to their home north of Ione in the summer of 2008 from Gresham. The person they purchased the home from did not mention the coming wind farms. When the Kluehes moved in, the nearest turbine was 20 miles away. Now they are four miles away. When Shepherd’s Flat South – part of a larger, nearly 1,000-megawatt project – goes in, turbines will stand less than a mile away.
Kluehe said his home is already for sale.
“I’ve seen the future and it looks pretty bleak,” he said.
A representative for Shepherd’s Flat approached Kluehe in January and offered him a one-time payment of $5,000 for a noise easement. He turned the representative down. Not only does he think there is credence to claims that living in close proximity to wind turbines is hazardous to your health, he is certain they lower property values because of the noise and impacts to the view.
At the county planning meeting, which was the second to determine whether the Willow Creek wind farm breaks the state noise rule at nearby homes, Kluehe addressed the planning commission directly.
“You’ve got a conditional use permit for wind farms but you haven’t taken the time to adequately plan for the impacts to the residents of this county,” he said.
Wind farms impact more than health and property values, he said – they pit landowners who are cashing in on the wind rush against those who are trying to work or retire in peace.
“Neighbors become enemies of neighbors,” Kluehe said.
All this doesn’t make the planning commission’s task regarding Willow Creek Energy LLC and its neighbors any easier. Each side has lawyers and acoustics experts to argue for its case and, in the end, the commission will be forced to decide on the meaning of a vague Oregon Administrative Rule.
“It’s very difficult, ” said Commissioner Tucker Rice. “We’re not noise experts.”
According to state noise control regulations, noise from a wind facility may increase the ambient level by 10 adjusted decibels, or 10 dBA. A wind developer may measure the background noise to determine what the ambient noise is, or it can use an assumed level of 26 dBA.
Does that mean wind farms have to abide by the 36 dBA limit if they do not establish an ambient level prior to construction, or must they stay within 10 dBA of the ambient level, however loud that might be?
Invenergy did not complete an ambient noise study prior to building the Willow Creek wind farm. However, its acoustics expert, Michael Theriault, argued that the code, also known as the “ambient degradation rule,” does not say wind farms must keep their decibels under a fixed number at nearby homes.
“The plant can be up to 10 dBA above the background noise, ranging from 36 to never more than 50,” he said.
Invenergy hired Theriault to complete a noise study after the wind farm’s neighbors complained. Theriault’s initial analysis of his data showed turbine noise often exceeded 36 dBA at three homes.
At Dan Williams’ house, Theriault found that wind turbine noise “moderately exceeded” the 36 dBA limit, by one to eight decibels, about 10 percent of the farm’s operating time. At Michael and Sherry Eaton’s house, he found that noise rose to 37 dBA about two percent of the time the turbines were operating.
At Dave Mingo’s house, Theriault found that turbine noise rose to 37 dBA about one percent of the time.
Theriault’s first analysis did not include data generated when the wind blew more than 9 meters per second, about 18 mph. He said that, according to the turbine manufacturer, turbine noise does not increase after that point.
However, after the neighbors’ acoustics expert, Kerrie Standlee, criticized that method at the first planning commission hearing, Theriault went back and re-examined his data. He found that noise at the neighbors’ homes exceeded the limit by a decibel more in most cases, and more often.
Still, the times the wind farm exceeds the limit are minor and infrequent, said Jeffrey Condit, a lawyer for Invenergy. Under the noise rule, wind facilities are allowed an exception for unusual and infrequent events.
And, he said, the turbines are in an agricultural zone, where numerous uses are allowed.
“The expectation can’t be that the area will be totally silent,” he said.
In his rebuttal to Theriault and Condit’s arguments, Kerrie Standlee said wind developers have a choice in the early stages of permitting a wind farm: complete a study to determine the ambient noise level or take the default of 26 dBA.
Either way, the wind project is restricted to a maximum decibel level, he said – it is not a floating standard.
Standlee said 36 dBA is by no means the most restrictive standard. Portland General Electric discovered an ambient noise level of 16 dBA at the home nearest the proposed Carty Generating Station, he said, so PGE will have a limit of 26 dBA there.
Standlee pointed out that Theriault’s study was done in the summer, which typically has higher background noise because of birds and insects. That means the turbine noise will rise even higher above the ambient level, by two to three decibels, during fall, winter and spring.
“If you add those decibels to the data they (Invenergy) have given you already, where does that leave us?” Standlee said. “Oregon law does not allow noise levels to exceed the specified limit by any amount during any month.”
Sandra and Arman Kluehe learned about Shepherds Flat South two weeks after they moved in. They had pulled up deep stakes to move to what they thought was their dream house – they sold two homes and moved their business 160 miles east.
“I love it out here,” Sandra Kluehe said. “It’s just really sad.”
They put their home up for sale last October and have yet to get one call. Two local real estate agents told them that, once the wind farm comes, they will have even more trouble selling their house.
“My stance is, if it’s done properly, I don’t have a problem with it,” Arman Kluehe said. “I’m not against wind farms – it’s where you put them.”
Sandra Kluehe said she fears she won’t be able to sleep at night once the turbines come, a common complaint of those who live nearest the Willow Creek wind farm. Arman Kluehe said he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life “fighting city hall, basically.
“If there’s a problem with the noise, are we going to have to wait years to get it resolved?” he said.
Arman Kluehe said he had to get a conditional use permit to build an office next to their house. One of the conditions of the permit was that he could not place a sign along Highway 74 to announce his business.
“There was no signage,” he said. “But they can put 405-foot turbines up across the road.”