Wind. It’s a subject that has blown open a large rift among Whitley County residents, and over the next few months a group of nine men and women will attempt to find common ground on an ordinance that would spell out how utility-grade wind farms are allowed to operate.
As the group deliberates, a St. Louis-based company, Wind Capital Group, will be watching from the sidelines, waiting to see whether the project it’s been working on for more than a year can move forward in Whitley County.
On a rare sunny day in April, David Sewell, executive director of the Whitley County Joint Planning and Building Department, gave a wry smile as he recounted how what started as a seemingly simple exercise two years ago by the county’s plan commission to begin researching an ordinance that would govern wind farms has since swirled into controversy.
“At that time, I really didn’t think that Whitley County was going to be a target for the wind companies. I just did not think that we fit that criteria,” Sewell said.
However, with available rural farmland and proximity to electricity transmission lines, more and more Indiana counties are fitting into wind farm developers’ criteria. In fact, 40 counties – the bulk of them in the northern half of the state – had adopted wind power and wind ordinances as of last June, according to information from Purdue University.
As Sewell and the plan commission studied other counties’ wind energy ordinances, Wind Capital Group, which was started in 2005 by Tom Carnahan, son of former Missouri governor Mel Carnahan, began signing up landowners in Cleveland, Washington and Jefferson townships in the southern part of the county for a proposed project.
“The technology has gotten better, to the point where you can capture more wind in low wind-resource areas,” explained John Doster, director of project development for Wind Capital Group, which has constructed wind farms in Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota and is working on a 300-megawatt development in Wells County called Wells Prairie (see accompanying story).
“We would consider this decent wind (in Whitley County). This isn’t Benton County. This isn’t White County, western Indiana-type wind, or North Dakota-type wind. But the benefit that Indiana has is its proximity to transmission, wind and open agricultural land. Those three things are what make Indiana a good location.”
The specifics of Wind Capital Group’s project in Whitley County aren’t yet decided, Doster said, because the company is still waiting to see the wind energy ordinance that officials ultimately fashion. Wind Capital Group has more than 150 25-year leases in place with landowners totaling 19,000 acres, but much of its spending on the project has been suspended pending the ordinance. The company does maintain an office in Columbia City.
“We’re still trying to decide what are the rules going to be for Whitley County, as far as setbacks, zoning regulations and things like that. So we want to see what it’s going to take to build it, if the project can actually be built,” Doster said.
Last October, county officials had made enough progress on their own proposed ordinance to hold a public hearing. More than 200 people crammed into a room that could hold half that amount, and many of them expressed opposition to the wind energy ordinance and the Wind Capital Group project.
Larry Long and Mark Mynhier were among those who attended the hearing. Long, an engineer, and Mynhier, an architect, both live in southern Whitley County and had several concerns after reading through the ordinance.
“It seemed very weak in terms of it got everything in it that the wind company wanted, but it was scary to us the way landowners would be treated and so forth in it,” Mynhier said.
Adding fuel to the fire, the chairman of the Whitley County Plan Commission, David Schilling, had failed to disclose that he was among the landowners who had signed leases with Wind Capital Group. He later recused himself from further discussions about the proposed wind energy ordinance. Sewell said the perceived conflict of interest “just made everything horrible.”
In November, Mynhier, Long and Stanley Crum formed Whitley County Concerned Citizens, which seeks to protect the county’s rural character and natural beauty. Long said the more they examined the proposed ordinance, the more wary they grew of wind energy.
“We’re not against alternative (energy), in fact, we’re pro that way,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of things the further you dig into this … that just don’t gel.”
First and foremost among the group’s concerns is the potential loss of property value for homes near wind turbines. Typical wind energy ordinances include provisions for creating setbacks of 1,000 feet from residential dwellings. Mynhier and Long said that’s not far enough – they would prefer setbacks of 4,500 feet to a mile – and evidence suggests that wind turbines can reduce the value of neighboring properties by 20 to 40 percent.
“In the comprehensive plan for Whitley County, one of the statements is, ‘It’s unacceptable for somebody to do something with their property that will affect his neighbor’s property value,’” Long said. “That’s the creed of the county, and that’s kind of where we’re at.”
Walter Molony, senior public affairs specialist at the National Association of Realtors in Washington, D.C., said his organization hasn’t studied the effects of large wind turbines on property values, but he said they’re likely similar to the effects high-tension power lines have, which “diminished pretty quickly with distance.”
A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory stated that while it’s possible wind farms could negatively affect a nearby home’s value, researchers found no widespread impact after looking at sales of nearly 7,500 single-family homes within 10 miles of 24 wind farms in nine states. One of the study’s authors, however, has since suggested that wind farm developers offer “property value guarantees” to homeowners near wind turbines.
The wind farm opponents have other concerns, including: safety, as wind turbine blades have been known to shatter and scatter pieces; unpleasant shadow flickering for those living close to wind turbines; “strobing” that’s caused by wind turbine blades reflecting sunlight; and excessive noise.
Wind farm developers say those concerns can be addressed by properly siting turbines. A 2008 report by the Ohio Department of Health agreed, then went on to compare a wind farm’s potential threat to public health to that of a coal-burning electrical power plant that releases toxic chemicals and lowers air quality.
“In summary, when compared to the operation of a typical coal-burning power plant in Ohio, the proposed development and operation of wind turbine farms in northern Ohio represents a minimal public health threat with minimal environmental impacts,” the report stated.
Last year, Portland, Ore.-based Iberdrola Renewables began construction of a $670-million, 152-turbine wind farm in Van Wert and Paulding counties in Ohio. That project faced similar concerns from Van Wert County residents before it was ultimately approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board.
Chad Martin, a renewable energy extension specialist at Purdue University, was among the presenters at an event in March organized by the Whitley County Economic Development Corp. to address some of the concerns raised about wind farms. He said the opposition in Whitley County was unusual for the state.
“Most of our rural communities are very open-minded to the development of wind projects,” he said.
For farmers, having a wind turbine located on their properties carries several benefits, chief among them annual lease payments, Martin said. Their presence also can serve to preserve farmland, and they have a minimal effect on agriculture production.
“They have an opportunity like none other than they’ll ever get in a generation or more,” he said of farmers.
With Whitley County’s proposed ordinance scrapped and seeking to solve the impasse, Sewell this year formed a nine-member committee comprising three wind members of Whitley County Concerned Citizens – including Mynhier – three wind energy supporters and three members of the county’s plan commission. Led by a facilitator, the committee will meet monthly to try and forge a nonbinding compromise that could then go before county officials. The first meeting was April 26, and Sewell said the discussion was “very positive.” Four more meetings are planned.
Sewell said it’s important the county adopt a wind energy ordinance because even if Wind Capital Group decides to drop its project in Whitley County, other companies will step forward. Four wind farm developers already have made inquiries.
“I just want to try to be open, and let’s do some analysis and then maybe we can come to a conclusion,” he said. “We probably will not be able to reach some kind of consensus, is my guess. But my goal, ultimately, is to get an ordinance. We need that. That was my goal in the beginning. It’s still my goal.”
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