Two summers ago, I took a road trip with my daughter to iconic places on the Great Plains and Mountain West – the Badlands in South Dakota, Devils Tower and Yellowstone in Wyoming, the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, and Arches National Park in Utah.
These unique geologic wonders are impressive. They physically and emotionally define the West for me and have done so since I first saw them as a young boy on family trips.
Something new was evident on this recent trip, however, that may come to define in a physical and emotional way our perception of familiar landscapes. Wind turbines by the hundreds populated the basins and ridges from Wisconsin across to Idaho and in Kansas and Missouri on the way home. These wind farms, with as many as 200 towers and turbines, profoundly change the horizon. Aside from their role in the alternative-energy debate, such wind farms have an emotional, visceral impact that is worthy of discussion.
In south-central Minnesota along Interstate 90, we felt compelled to pull off the road to hear, feel and absorb a wind farm that filled our view from horizon to horizon. Later research showed this to be the Jackson Wind Farm, which has 126 turbines built by Iderbola.
Each tower with extended blade is 397 feet tall, and the turbine housing itself, perched 262 feet high, is as large as a school bus. There on the side of the road I could hear the rhythmic “wump wump” of the 131-foot blades as they spun in the steady wind.
It is not an unpleasant, industrial noise, but sure is different from the usual soundscape of the otherwise placid farms and rural roadways. We could still hear meadowlarks, redwing blackbirds and bobolinks, as well as the ever-present rush of westerly winds, but the turbines added a new auditory impression.
Likewise, the appearance of so many towers marching into the distance, blades constantly in motion, also changed the look of the land. I imagine the people who have lived and farmed in that community all their lives might find the new look disquieting: a forest of towers in shades of gray, white and shadow, always present against a familiar sky; sunrises, clouds, storms and sunsets interrupted by the vertical foreground of manmade towers.
We have the makings of a larger version of such a wind farm within sight, on clear days, from the top of Fort Wayne’s tall buildings. Just across the state line in Paulding and Van Wert counties, two companies have started erecting more than 300 towers and turbines. The flat expanses of corn, soybeans, woodlots and farmsteads, so familiar to us since childhood, now have an added dimension. This change always sparks a remark as we drive east on U.S. 30 or U.S. 24 into Ohio.
There is naturally an emotional aspect to such a changed landscape. We should not ignore those who ask for more public discussion on the issue before regulators give the green light to wind-farm development. We should instead embrace those opinions as a vital part of any community debate.
When the look, feel and aesthetic value of a landscape is to be altered in a permanent and extremely visible way there must be room for emotion. To confine the regulatory consideration only to the mechanics of access roads, lease terms and transmission lines misses an essential community value; that is, our view of place is often shaped by its visual impact.
Our communities, and regulators, too, must keep this in mind as we consider wind farms in the mix toward an alternative-energy future.
David Van Gilder is a partner in the Fort Wayne law firm of Van Gilder & Trzynka.
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