September 22, 2010

FHSU wind plan in limbo

By Kaley Conner, The Hays Daily News, 21 September 2010

While many Hays residents spoke in favor of the project Monday evening, it remains unclear if a wind energy facility planned by Fort Hays State University will get the green light.

Members of the Hays Area Planning Commission, however, agreed to revise the city’s current wind energy regulations and consider allowing taller wind turbines in city limits, which might accommodate the university’s proposal.

“I think the one thing we can all agree on, from the very beginning of this process, is that we were all in agreement to the benefits and contributions of the university towards the city of Hays,” said Jim Fouts, a planning commissioner and acting chair at Monday’s meeting. “I think that we were all in favor of doing everything we could to benefit the university without doing something to the detriment of the city of Hays and the 3-mile zone. The only question is, how far do we go?”

That’s a question that remains unanswered.

The facility, as proposed, would consist of two turbines – not to exceed 500 feet tall – and generate up to 5 megawatts of energy. It’s projected the project would save the university about $800,000 annually.

The city’s zoning regulations prohibit wind turbines taller than 125 feet in the 3-mile radius surrounding Hays, and that is where the project would be located. The planning commission in 2009 opted to limit the height of turbines in this area to ensure future municipal growth, Fouts said.

While FHSU has requested the policy be amended to allow taller towers, city officials have expressed concern that it is not legally feasible to amend regulations for one request. Thus, planning commissioners are considering changes to the overall document.

There is, however, a potential curveball in the planning commission’s efforts – the Ellis County Commission in late August enacted more rigorous wind energy regulations. If the city’s regulations governing the 3-mile buffer zone are less strict than county regulations, it could result in a boom of wind energy development close to city limits, said Jesse Rohr, the city’s superintendent of planning, inspection and enforcement.

“I think we’d be ill-advised to adopt anything less than what the county has done,” he said. “That would allow someone to step across the 3-mile boundary and erect towers that they couldn’t do on the other side of the fence, basically.”

In a 3-1 vote, with Fouts opposing, commissioner Paul Phillips abstaining and four commissioners absent, the commission agreed to review the wind energy regulations in-depth and study the county’s new document.

Planning Commissioner Bob Wertenberger spoke in favor of reviewing the ordinance and making possible changes.

“I’m not just prepared to say, ‘Let’s go with the county regulations,'” he said. “Maybe what they’ve done makes it prohibitive for us to even raise (the height limit).”

Commission chambers were crowded Monday, and several expressed frustration at the slow pace of setting policy. Five residents spoke in favor of the FHSU project or allowing taller turbines, and no opposition was expressed during a public hearing.

“This small wind project is really a shining example of innovation by a university,” said Hays resident Jeff Wick. “As it was mentioned before, this really allows the university to create educational programs around wind energy and make them an example of wind energy across the state.”

Several residents also suggested projects should be considered based on individual merits.

“I think we should be flexible enough that we can allow for future projects, whether it be the Fort Hays project or others, while at the same time, allowing the Board of Zoning Appeals the latitude to deny the projects if they’re too big … or pose safety risks,” said Hays resident Don Bickle Jr. “To not allow them the opportunity to present, I think, is foolish on our part.”

Discussion will continue next month at the planning commission’s regular meeting.

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