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Wind energy rules up for public hearing

One of Ellis County’s most talked about topics during the past few years will be in the spotlight once again on Tuesday night.

During the monthly Ellis County Joint Planning Commission meeting at 7 p.m., committee members will host a public hearing on changes to the county’s wind energy zoning regulations that were proposed by Mark Bannister of Butterfield Wind during the committee’s December meeting.

Bannister suggested changing the current setback distance for turbines from the current 10 times the tip height distance to 1,500 feet, increasing the current 40-decibel limit to 65 and decreasing the protest petition and notifications areas.

The original distances were adopted in August 2010 by a 2-1 vote by the Ellis County Commissioners. The Joint Planning Commission voted unanimously to hold a public hearing for the proposed changes at its last meeting.

Although Bannister warned the planning commission if the setbacks are not changed Ellis County could lose out on the possibility of wind energy, Ellis County Commission Chairman Glenn Diehl said wind energy projects in the county are still viable.

“As a commission, we made it quite clear that all they need to do is get a waiver from anybody to go around the setbacks and sound regulations, and we would support that,” Diehl said. “Once the have the waivers in hand, the county will support it.”

Former commissioner Perry Henman said once the already approved Hays Wind LLC project begins, others will follow.

“I think that if they are out promoting the project we have in the county, that will help the second and third ones,” Henman said. “Every time they keep stirring the waters, I think it kind of discourages people.”

Since 2004, wind energy has been a hot and some times volatile topic. As of yet, no ground has been broken on any proposed projects. In 2006, the commission had a consultant come in to look at all the county’s zoning regulations, including wind energy.

Despite the consultant’s and planning commission’s recommendations of a 1,000-foot setback from residences, county commissioners decided to increase the setback to 10 times the tip height of the wind turbines.

Currently in other counties with wind farms, zoning regulation setbacks are non-existent or are at 1,000 feet. Lincoln County and Wichita County have no zoning regulations, while Butler County and Ford County include a 1,000-foot setback.

Diehl said he was looking toward the future when deciding on the setback distances.

“When I looked at it, a lot of these 1,000-foot setbacks were for wind turbines that were a lot smaller,” Diehl said. “In the last 10 years, these things have just exploded and the setbacks have stayed the same. Instead of a 125-foot turbine, now all of the sudden you have 400- or 500-footers. As the technology is advancing, our setback regulations aren’t keeping up.”

Henman said advancing technology is why no set distance was adopted.

“It’s why we came up with the not having a set number, but base it on the height of the turbine,” Henman said. “If the technology changes in the future and they make smaller ones, then they can be closer.”

Since the county commission adopted the current regulations, a federal lawsuit was filed against the commission by two dozen Ellis County landowners and Invenergy Wind Development LLC, Chicago.

Diehl said he hopes a compromise can be reached.

“The technology is just advancing so fast,” Diehl said. “My job is to try to find some common ground, and it’s been extremely difficult because you have two sides that are so far apart.”