ST. HENRY – NextEra Energy Resources announced Tuesday it is pulling the plug on a locally-proposed wind farm project out of respect for the area’s rich religious history.
Representatives of the Florida-based wind development company told The Daily Standard they changed their minds about constructing 40 to 70 wind turbines in the region after learning how much residents value the southern Mercer County-based “Land of the Cross Tipped Churches.”
“The last couple months we’ve had discussions with community leaders and area clergymen, and we’ve come to understand and appreciate the whole Cross Tipped Church region,” NextEra spokesman Steve Stengel said. “We’ve listened to the community and heard what they had to say … and we agree with them.”
The Land of the Cross Tipped Churches highlights the roots of Catholicism in the area and in 1979 was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The tourist attraction includes 65 churches, former convents, schools and rectories, as well as cemeteries and other sites across Mercer, Auglaize, Darke and Shelby counties.
An informational open house scheduled by NextEra for Thursday in St. Henry has been canceled. Stengel said the event was nixed because of the flooding problems residents are experiencing.
“We don’t want to seem insensitive to the communities,” he said.
Stengel said NextEra “still likes Mercer County” as a wind farm site and is now focusing its attention in the north and northwest sector. Wind test towers will be erected in that area “when appropriate sites are selected,” he said.
The four test towers NextEra has in southern Mercer County will stay in place and continue to collect valuable data, Stengel said. NextEra director Scott Scovill said all leases penned between the company and area landowners are binding and will be honored.
News about NextEra’s decision to abandon the project brought joy and relief to those who had been opposing the development in the St. Henry, Maria Stein, Fort Recovery and Minster area. “If they’re going to go ahead and make that move, we have to give credit where credit is due,” said Jim Niekamp of St. Henry, a spokesman for Citizens Against Turbines (CAT). “We have to give them credit for listening. It’s what we all hoped for.”
Niekamp said many people feared the proposed giant wind turbines would dwarf the church steeples that identify the region’s heritage. He feels the issue has caused many people to realize the value of “what lies in our own backyard.”
The Rev. Tom Hemm, pastor of the St. Henry cluster of Catholic churches, met with Next-Era officials several times in recent weeks as a representative of the Precious Blood Society. NextEra had unsuccessfully sought to lease land from St. Charles Center in Carthagena – a facility owned by the Precious Blood, he said.
“Our role as the Precious Blood community was to be neutral,” Hemm said, adding the organization supports alternative energy ideas. “We listened and heard excellent reasons from both sides.”
Hemm said his hope all along was that community members embraced the moral values embedded in their heritage. “I wanted to be sure the values represented by those crosses – mutual respect and a willingness to listen – were being lived by the community,” he said.
NextEra representatives said they haven’t given up hope on establishing their own roots here. “We wouldn’t be in Mercer County if we didn’t think there was an opportunity here,” Stengel said.
Although happy about the move, Niekamp is skeptical. Mel Haas of DeKalb County, Ill., said a nearly identical situation occurred in his agricultural area nearly eight years ago – and the turbines were still built.
“They came here in 2002-2003 and told us if the community didn’t want this, they would move on,” and they did, Haas said in a phone interview this morning.
However, NextEra officials returned and in January 2010 began operating a wind farm with 126 turbines – many of which surround his rural home in Shabbona.
Haas said he has a message for the people in Mercer County: “Watch your back. Stay vigilant on this issue.”
Stengel confirmed Haas’ version of the company’s actions, but said the company “re-engaged” and ultimately built the wind farm in a different location within the county after market conditions improved.
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