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Committee suspends rule governing placement of wind turbines

A legislative committee voted Tuesday to suspend rules adopted by the state Public Service Commission last year regarding the placement of wind turbines.

The 5-2 vote by the joint committee that reviews administrative rules means there are now no statewide standards in place governing setbacks – the minimum distance between a turbine and a nearby home – and other permitting requirements for wind turbines on small wind projects.

In a debate that has pitted economic development opportunity against concerns about property rights, wind energy supporters argued in favor of the rule while critics of wind power projects contended it was not restrictive enough.

The PSC rule, finalized in December, would have taken effect Tuesday if the vote had failed.

Jennifer Giegerich of the League of Conservation Voters expressed disappointment with the vote, saying it sends the wrong message on job creation at a time when the wind components industry in the state has been expanding.

“Now we’re back to where we were two years ago when wind developers said Wisconsin was an unfriendly place to build,” she said.

The full Legislature must follow up on the committee’s vote by passing a bill to throw out the PSC rule. A bill under consideration would send the matter back to the PSC for revision, giving the agency seven months to complete that work, said Scott Grosz, a state Legislative Council attorney.

Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) said the PSC rule was tantamount to “a government-sanctioned taking because it reduced the value of property for nonparticipating landowners without their consent and without compensation.”

But Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) said all energy choices are controversial, including coal, and it’s important for the state to support wind energy.

“This is the next generation of technology,” he said. “Why would we not be supporting this when they say if you suspend these rules they’ll just go to another state.”

The American Wind Energy Association said the PSC rule was restrictive enough, given that it set specific noise limits and restrictions on shadow flicker in addition to turbine distance setbacks.

“These rules were developed collaboratively by the wind energy industry and all major stakeholders in Wisconsin, based on input from six public hearings and two years of information gathering, to protect the interests of all involved parties,” said Jeff Anthony, director of business development at the American Wind Energy Association and a Wisconsin resident.

But Bob Welch, a lobbyist for the Coalition for Wisconsin Environmental Stewardship, which represents groups that have been fighting wind projects, said his constituents need a “fair hearing” at the PSC. “As far as those who want to build wind turbines in Wisconsin, all they’ve got to do is treat their neighbors fairly,” Welch said. “Property rights need to be protected.”