Some local officials feel environmental advocates have gotten in the way of economic development in Finney County, with regard to a wind farm project that is taking off in Grant and Haskell counties.
The 405-megawatt wind farm, known as the Buffalo Dunes Wind Project, is being developed by Lenexa-based TradeWind Energy and is slated for construction in mid-March, pending final confirmation on power purchasing that’s still in the works, according to company officials.
In Finney County, TradeWind plans to build overhead transmission lines that will hook to a substation located just south of Sunflower Electric Power Corp.’s Holcomb station, according to Brice Barton, a development manager with the Lenexa business.
Finney County stands to benefit, if and when those transmission lines commence construction.
TradeWind representatives approached the Finney County commission at Monday’s commission meeting offering a PILOT agreement – payment in lieu of taxes – that will benefit the county in the amount of $500 per megawatt of power installed per year for the next 10 years. That offer has the potential to generate just more than $100,000 for the county in the first year alone.
Barton, who met with commissioners Monday, said in a separate interview on Thursday that his company initially had considered Finney County as a site for the Buffalo Dunes Wind Project but eventually found stronger wind data measurements in Grant and Haskell counties.
In addition, TradeWind consults with state departments, federal agencies and non-governmental special-interest groups before making final determinations about their projects “as part of corporate policy,” according to Jennifer Dean, TradeWind’s environmental studies and permitting manager.
“It’s important to us to get opinions and input from all the different (groups) before we finalize designs,” Dean said. “It’s corporate policy to be as environmentally conscious as we possibly can.”
Some of those agencies and groups include the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, the Playa Lakes Joint Venture, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
In consultations with those groups, TradeWind also determined that there were environmental obstacles that would get in the way of placing the turbines in Finney County, both Barton and Dean said.
“The Sandsage Prairie is an ecosystem that is very fragile, and impacting it in a large way could have an impact on the species that depend on that ecosystem,” Barton said, adding that two species in particular are the longnose snake and the lesser prairie-chicken. “We were conscious of that as we were looking quite a bit at that habitat.”
While the current extent of the Sandsage Prairie is smaller than its historic extent, much of the southern half of Finney County, south of the Arkansas River, is still covered by this native ecosystem, according to Travis W. Taggart, a curator of herpetology from the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays.
The longnose snake, native to southwest Kansas, is a threatened species and is protected by the Kansas Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act, according to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
While they occur over much of the sand sage habitat in Kansas south of the Arkansas river, they are easiest to observe in Finney and Kearny counties, according to Taggart.
The lesser prairie chicken is found in many states, but its largest populations occur in Kansas and Nebraska, according to the state wildlife agency.
But not having the wind turbines installed in Finney, has been a real missed opportunity, some county commissioners said during their Monday meeting.
“All this economic activity could have taken place here,” Commissioner Larry Jones said Monday. “With the nature of conservancy, (the project) would disrupt some miniscule snake that no one seems to know anything about. That’s a real infringement to private property owners. But we have no control over that. … It’s just sad that we’re controlled by people outside our area that think they have our best interest in mind.”
Jones could not be reached Friday for further comment.
Bill King, chairman of the Area Planning Commission that handles planning and zoning matters county-wide, echoed sentiments similar to Jones at Monday’s county meeting.
King said in a separate interview Thursday that he is one of the private landowners TradeWind is leasing land from in Haskell County and has been involved with TradeWind representatives for a couple of years.
While he welcomes the economic boon through the project for all the counties involved, King also reiterated his dismay that environmental and conservation issues in and around the Sandsage Prairie area – where the transmission lines are planned to be built – played any role at all in the company’s decision to move away from Finney County.
“I’ve been involved in this thing in Haskell County for the last two or three years. … It’s a shame the (Environmental Protection Agency) is killing things like this,” King said. “Larry Jones had it exactly. People from (places like) Washington, D.C. are coming out to Kansas and telling us what’s best for us. It’s not right, and it’s not going to work.”
King also said, in his mind, he feels it would be easier for an oil or gas company to come drill natural resources out of the ground than a wind farm to take off in Finney County.
“This EPA thing is completely out of hand, and we’re not fighting against it. The wind company can’t fight either, because they’re in a no-win position. If they complain, they’ll get killed in the next project,” King said. “If you can drill a gas well or oil well, why not a wind charger? That is much, much, much cleaner operation.”
The Buffalo Dunes Wind Project is estimated to generate about $105,000 in revenue for Finney County in its first year, if and when TradeWind installs its first phase: just less than 210-megawatts, enough power for about 63,000 Kansas homes.
But the bigger boon is in Grant and Haskell counties, where between 100 and 200 turbines are planned for about 40,000 acres of property the company is leasing from private landowners.
Already, commissioners in both Haskell and Grant counties have approved PILOT agreements with TradeWind that are expected to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for the county’s general coffers, substantial added sources of revenue for both counties.
Several states and localities, including Kansas, allow property tax exemptions for renewable energy systems like wind farms in order to promote development. Those qualifying exemptions last for the lifetime of the project, according to the state department of revenue.
Both PILOT agreements in Grant and Haskell counties are set to deliver $3,750 per megawatt of operation per year to each county, with that amount compounded annually at 2 percent for the next 19 years.
According to Haskell County’s PILOT agreement, that would be $5,463 per megawatt of operation in the 19th year of the agreement, equaling several hundreds of thousands of dollars for both counties and even more if and when the wind farm power generation expands.
Grant County officials have said the county is expected to receive about $350,000 in TradeWind’s first year of operation, based on the company’s first 210-megawatt phase.
Haskell County Commission Chairman Randolph Froelich could not be reached for comment Friday.
By Kansas statute, certain transmission lines also stand to benefit from property tax exemption for at least 10 years.
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