The term “Intergovernmental dialogue” is about as exciting as watching a windmill turn on a calm day.
Similar things could also be said about the term “Urban Reserve District.”
But they are both crucial elements to economic development in Rice County, inciting strong reactions from county residents and multiple levels of government on how to best use the land directly adjacent to a city’s boundaries.
And all of this is coming to a head over the placement of wind turbines in Northfield’s Urban Reserve District (URD).
Urban Reserve District
URDs essentially act as a “buffer zone” for development that may directly impact future expansion of cities. Regulated by state law, the zone extends one mile from city boundaries and allows cities to have a say in development that encroaches on their borders, according to county ordinance.
But all the URD really does is give the city a say, nothing more. The area is still fully within the county’s jurisdiction.
“They do not have the ability to allow or disallow,” said Rice County Commissioner Galen Malecha. “It just gives them a say in what goes on.”
And that includes the placement of wind turbines.
But there are a few problems charting the future of a city’s growth.
“There is an expectation for cities to grow,” said Tracy Davis, chair of the Northfield Planning Commission. “But what’s not clear is if that growth will happen in 10 years or 60.”
It makes dealing with something like wind development a bit tricky.
At the most recent Rice County Planning Commission meeting, residents turned out in droves to protest the placement of two wind turbines within Northfield’s URD. They had a laundry list of concerns about wind turbines: They would depress land values, be too noisy, cast shadows, affect wildlife and livestock or were dangerous to residents’ health.
But in a murky economy that could spring to life at any moment – or continue to sputter – it isn’t clear what the development picture in Northfield looks like, or how these alleged concerns could play out in future development.
“The city is going to have to decide what is more important: Is it capitalizing on wind energy? Or keeping all avenues open for future residential development? The city needs to figure out what it wants from these zones,” said Betsey Buckheit, Northfield City Council representative for Ward 2.
Which is why on Dec. 7 the city of Northfield officially asked for an intergovernmental dialogue with the Rice County Board of Commissioners.
Essentially, Northfield officials want to hash out the future of wind turbine development in Northfield’s URD.
“[URDs] are here to keep tabs on development, but it does not always work out perfectly,” said Buckheit. “There is not a lot of joint thinking here when it comes to URDs, and I don’t think Northfield and the county communicate very well, so that needs to change.”
She was not alone in advocating more communication.
“Somebody needs to start the dialogue between the county and Northfield on wind turbine development in [URDs},” said Davis. “We need to start getting on the same page.”
Governmental dialogue is a tricky, especially when it comes to something that is not routinely talked about.
“For the first two or three years, we never even talked about those,” said Rice County Commissioner Jake Gillen. “Now they are all the talk because of wind and before I don’t think anyone knew what it was.”
“I understand why they exist,” he continued. “The city wants to have some say it what happens in that county space around the city.
“But I don’t know what sitting and talking about it is going to do.”
And that sheds light on the track record for communication between Northfield and the county.
Faribault and county officials meet several times a month, Gillen said. The final approval of the SAGE Electrochromics expansion contract took place during the first joint meeting between the county and city in 22 years. Northfield, however, has strayed from that kind of cooperation.
Commissioner Malecha served on the Northfield city council when communication lines were more concrete.
“Back then, it was mostly just feedlots,” he said. “But there seemed to be more communication.”
Currently, Rice County and Northfield meet four times a year.
“There isn’t enough communication, really,” said Gillen.
Which makes the formal request for a dialogue on URD even more rare.
Kerfuffle in Northfield
In Northfield, the URD has become the focal point of two separate wind projects. One is widely accepted, the other has skeptics.
And it all comes down to location.
“The Carleton project is a bit more coherent,” said Buckheit. “It fits the campus’ move towards green energy.”
The Carleton project is to the north of the city, and is also on the other side of Carleton’s arboretum, quite literally a green boundary for future development. Even though the proposed wind turbine is within the city’s “priority growth area,” it is widely accepted that city infrastructure will not move north for development.
On the other hand, the Spring Creek project, to the south of the city, is not located within any priority growth area, but does fall closer to city lines. Additionally, it falls where growth usually occurs in Northfield.
“At one point, we had a master plan for development all the way to [County Road] 81,” Buckheit said. “It just doesn’t fit the future of that area.”
Davis said that is why these projects need to be addressed differently – it comes down to more than just lines on paper.
“All things need to be considered in projects like these,” she said.
Adding to the tension is the fact that the Northfield Planning Commission included a cautionary note on the Spring Creek wind project, a note that was not included in the Northfield City Council’s final endorsement of the project to the Rice County Planning Commission.
But from a county’s perspective, you can’t pick and chose between projects, even in the URD.
“You can’t have one thing go in [the URD] and one thing not,” Gillen said.
When it comes to development projects in URDs then, the county’s hands are tied. This lends to skepticism when the idea of more communication comes about.
“If someone wants to build turbines and they meet county ordinance, there is not much you can do,” said Gillen. “I know there are a lot of concerns, but that is what our ordinances are for.”
Because the URDs are county jurisdiction, there are not a lot of ways around that point.
“The Spring Creek project meets county laws, and the county does not have a lot of discretion in stopping it,” said Buckheit, referencing one of the proposed turbine projects.
But Malecha said communication is still crucial, giving hope to those who want Northfield more involved in the process.
“I think it would be a very good idea to sit down with Northfield and other municipalities,” he said. “We need to know where each municipality wants to go with their development.”
But he was cautious to suggest that city government could have a game changing impact.
“Turbines will re-shape the way things are developed around the city,” he said. “It’s county jurisdiction, so the best bet is for residents to lobby their commissioner.”
Future of the URD
Buckheit said the formal request for dialogue is a step toward thinking together on turbines and their use in the URD. A cautious supporter of wind energy, she said the development needs to make sense.
“I hope regulation will keep coming along from the state and other levels of government,” she said. “Wind energy is still a young business, and we are learning more about it all the time.”
Northfield plans to review wind turbine ordinances in the future.
“All over the world, wind project restrictions and regulations are getting more technical,” Davis said. “It would make sense for us to involve as many entities as possible to sort through this.”
But any change to either URD or wind power ordinance seems a ways away.
“There is no political will to change setbacks at this time,” Malecha said.
No formal meeting time has been arranged for any discussion about URD use around Northfield, and the uncertainty around residential or commercial development is not conducive to a hasty timeline.
“I think development around there is going to be so slow that people will become accustomed to the turbines,” Gillen said. “But it will still be important to pay attention to ordinances and see what changes might need to come.”
“Are wind turbines appropriate for Urban Reserve Districts? I guess the answer is maybe,” said Buckheit.
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