Wall to wall, occupying every available space in the Whitley County Plan Commission’s chamber, people poured in for the meeting Wednesday evening to discuss a proposed ordinance regarding wind energy in Whitley County.
Early arrivals found seats, but it wasn’t long until residents were standing in adjacent rooms, leaning on the wall behind the commission table and still others were seated on the floor.
With so many citizens in such a small place and with a topic so heated, it wasn’t long until the air was humid, faces were red and tempers were flaring.
While the entire Plan Commission was present for the meeting, one person was notably absent – the commission’s president David Schilling.
Conducting the meeting in his absence was commission member Bill Auer, who addressed Schilling’s absence immediately saying that he would no longer be involved in the wind energy ordinance process.
Commission attorney Dawn Boyd further responded, clarifying that Schilling had recused himself from further discussion of the wind mill ordinance issue, but that he still planned to serve on the commission.
“He is recusing himself from any discussion or consideration on this matter,” Boyd said.
In October, it was revealed during the Plan Commission meeting that Schilling, himself a land owner in Washington Township, had signed into lease agreements with Wind Capital Group, the firm investigating plans to erect windmills in Whitley County while serving as the head of the commission writing the ordinance that would govern that and any other similar project in the future. Discussions regarding the wind energy ordinance began in March 2010. During the meeting Wednesday night, Boyd indicated that she had memorandum of lease that were signed by Schilling on June 23 and July 1, 2010.
“I don’t believe Mr. Schilling was trying to do anything deceptive and dishonest,” Boyd said.
Auer stated that he and fellow board members were unaware of Schilling’s conflict of interest until it was discussed at the October board meeting.
Two attorneys were present representing different groups opposed to draft of the wind ordinance that was up for consideration Wednesday night – and both made points regarding Schilling’s conflict of interest in the matter, in addition to other points of contention.
Attorney Pat Hess, representing the newly formed non-profit 401c3 organization Whitley County Concerned Citizens, stated that his clients believe Schilling tainted the whole process. Hess urged the commission to start over again, saying, “That’s fair government.”
“Beware of the cookie cutter approach to ordinances,” Hess said in reference to the commission’s creation of a proposed ordinance using ordinances from other counties around the state. “Because if it works in other counties, it doesn’t mean it is what’s best for Whitley County.” Hess said Whitley County is among the smallest counties geographically and with the highest population density involved in the development of ordinances for wind energy.
Hess said his clients were requesting a six month moratorium on the issue and the development of a community-based committee to research the issue further. He cited a section of code indicating that allows for the creation of such a committee.
Attorney Thomas Niezer of Barrett & McNagny, representing John and Rolene Popp, Chris Popp, Dr. Thomas Armbuster, Quilhot Farms and Russ and Jeanette Quilhot, also addressed the conflict of interest.
Neizer said he felt the conflict of interest may have begun as early as March 2010 when the commission’s minutes referenced Schilling’s participation in a wind energy project.
“The process is tainted. It’s completely tainted and it must start over without the taint of any of you,” Niezer said. “To the extent that the conflict was not raised, everything after it is tainted.”
Niezer also noted other areas of consideration on the wind energy ordinance issue, urging the county to conduct its own wind energy studies and to seek it’s own research.
“My clients support economic development in this county,” Niezer said. “They’ve provided it. But where has this county done the findings? You’d be creating an overlay district over the entirety of this county without any regard for existing zoning classifications. Where are the studies you’ve done yourselves – not the ones the companies have done for you?”
“Your citizenry is on edge…that might be putting it lightly,” Niezer added.
“How many turbines is it going to take to feed SDI or this city,” Niezer asked. “You’re going to find there’s not enough land in your county. We’re not going to accept what the industry has fed you. It’s time for you to roll up your sleeves and come up with what’s best.”
Galen Eberhart of Auburn, who owns land in Whitley County, stated that he was in favor of the ordinance and that he had done his homework with regards to researching wind energy. “This was all before it began to happen in Whitley County,” Eberhart said. “I found this was a very ideal situation,” he said, adding that he had signed a lease with the Wind Capital Group.
“I have one underlying concern,” Eberhart said. “I know how hard it is as an economic development corporation to attract business to a county. This is a $250 million investment on the part of a company. How often can you get that kind of a shot to bring that kind of interest to a community? We want to send the right message to the rest of industry.”
Alan Tio of the Whitley County EDC mirrored some of the same sentiments, adding that he felt the Plan Commission has done a good job of drafting an ordinance that is fair to economic development and that protects landowners and residents. He added that he felt the impact of a project locally would be significant in terms of financial investment in the county and with the creation of jobs.
Dozens of residents voiced their opposition to the ordinance as well as their opposition to any specific project that may or may not be proposed by the Wind Capital Group. David Sewell of the Whitley County Building & Planning office stated at the beginning of the evening that no specific projects were in the works at this time.
“This is not a hearing on allowing a wind turbine project,” Sewell said. “Not a referendum on wind farms, not a debating of the wind industry.” Sewell said the crux of the meeting was to determine if a wind ordinance that would govern any future projects would be satisfactory or if it would need further tweaking. “To date, there has been no project submitted and there is no project on the table.”
The hearing continued for more than two hours, with residents given an ample opportunity to voice their concerns pertaining specifically to the ordinance.
Mark Roach of Union Township was among those who spoke. Roach said he appreciated the fact that although discussion was often heated on the matter, that the Plan Commission was allowing the dialog to take place. He said he feels other bodies of local government do not allow for citizens to have such discourse. Roach further stated that he was offended by Wind Capital Group’s actions in entering into an agreement with Schilling.
It ended up being Schilling’s conflict of interest that was the lynch pin for the evening’s discussion.
Following public comments, commission members Mike Schrader and Kim Wheeler both stated they had no knowledge of Schilling’s conflict.
Schrader said he felt it was the conflict that needed to be addressed before any further discussion could really take place. Boyd agreed.
“We’re a board that’s supposed to take care of the people of our county,” Schrader said. “We owe it to these people and also to the people who have lease agreements. I’m a representative of the taxpayers of Whitley County. I don’t feel I can do this justice if I don’t feel in my heart that it’s right.”
“I’ve said before that I only want to do this once and that I want to do it right,” Wheeler said of the proposed wind energy ordinance. “As far as I’m concerned, it isn’t right.”
“I don’t want to be part of something that doesn’t look right, that doesn’t smell right,” added commission member Doug Wright.
Wright then formally proposed starting the entire ordinance process over from the beginning, a motion seconded by Schrader and approved unanimously by the Whitley County Plan Commission.
Essentially, the wind ordinance process will now begin all over again, with fresh insight and research. The commission will begin the process as soon as their December meeting.
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