Proposed wind farm divides community; 50-turbine project could begin this year after Ohio Supreme Court ruling
URBANA – A 50-turbine wind farm that could begin construction as early as this year has divided neighbors, local political candidates and, just last week, even Ohio’s highest court.
The Buckeye Wind Project was the first of its kind proposed in the state but had stalled in a contentious battle that led to a split decision in the Ohio Supreme Court. In the meantime, several other projects have moved ahead.
The court ruling means the project, which could generate as much as $20 million in taxes for Champaign County, can continue. The justices were divided, ruling 4-3 that the Ohio Power Siting Board met obligations to protect the public and site the project properly.
The dispute is likely to become more heated, and a second phase of the project, which would add an additional 57 turbines in the area, has been proposed by Everpower Wind Holdings.
Supporters, including several local farmers and advocates of renewable energy, have argued the wind farm will provide clean electricity to the grid, add hundreds of temporary jobs and contribute needed tax revenue to local governments and schools.
Opponents have raised concerns about noise and safety and have argued it is a poor fit for the county. Many residents avoid the argument entirely, because it involves friends on both sides of the issue.
Neighbor vs. neighbor
Terry Rittenhouse bought his home on North Ludlow Road in Union Twp. in 1985.
Once the first phase of the Buckeye Wind Project is installed, he said eight turbines will face his home from across the road.
Although the specific model has yet to be selected, representatives from the company have said the turbines will be about 490 feet tall from the base to the tip of the blade. In comparison, the tallest standing attractions at Kings Island are the Eiffel Tower and Drop Tower, which each stand at 315 feet.
Rittenhouse said he is unsure about the noise the turbines might produce. He does not believe they were sited far enough from homes.
“I have been drawn into this because it’s going to remove the value from my home,” Rittenhouse said.
Nancy Dixon, auditor for Van Wert County, said it’s too early to say what effect the turbines will have on property values in that county after a similar project. She said the county has received a handful of requests from residents to lower their property taxes due to the Blue Creek Wind Project but said hearings will likely not take place until April.
At the other end of the dispute are landowners like Ross Yocum, a fourth-generation farmer who lives near Cable.
Yocum, who will have turbines on his property, said he respects the concerns of his neighbors but thinks many of their arguments will subside once residents get used to them.
Yocum saw it as an opportunity to help promote renewable energy, encourage investment in the county and provide a stable income for local farmers.
Yocum said the county has struggled financially, and the wind farm will provide a chance for new investment.
It is expected to create between 150 and 200 temporary jobs during construction and about a dozen full-time jobs to maintain the turbines.
“We just don’t have any new industry coming in I know of to develop our tax structure,” Yocum said.
Rittenhouse said many residents on both sides of the issue have decided not to discuss it in public for fear of offending their friends and neighbors.
“We are all friends, and we are all community members and community supporters,” Rittenhouse said. “But it’s to the point where when we are together, we do not discuss this now.”
It’s not easy to distinguish the Buckeye Wind Project from others in the state, according to information from the Ohio Power Siting Board’s staff reports on each project. The maximum height of the proposed turbines ranges from about 398 feet at the Hardin Wind Farm to 494 feet at the Black Fork Wind Farm in Richland County. Most of those proposed in the state are taller than 400 feet.
Projected population growth in Champaign County is slightly higher than that of other projects proposed, according to information in the state’s staff reports. The population of the participating townships in Champaign County is expected to grow about 6.5 percent by 2020.
In the other eight projects approved by the siting board, the population in those project areas is expected to either decline slightly, or grow at no more than 1 percent over the next 10 years.
While the population density in the project area is listed for each of the other projects, the Buckeye Wind application simply provides the population density of Champaign County as a whole, making comparisons difficult.
Matt Butler, a spokesman for the siting board, said that may be because the Buckeye Wind project was the first in the state, there were slight differences in how the data was displayed in the staff report. Overall though, Butler said the board reviewed each case under the same criteria, and said it’s not clear why there was more opposition in Champaign County.
“Each case is a bit different,” Butler said. “In some communities the number of folks who are in opposition to the project hasn’t been as high.”
Energy Zone taxes
Although there are about 12,000 fewer people living in Van Wert County compared to Champaign County, the area has had its share of disputes as well.
The Blue Creek Wind Farm includes about 150 turbines, three-fourths of which are located in Van Wert County. It will be fully operational in about six weeks and is one of two operational in the state.
Clair Dudgeon, a Van Wert County commissioner, said the county approved an Alternative Energy Zone that allowed the project to be taxed at a reduced rate. It has since added about $2.2 million a year to the local tax base. The tax money generated by the wind farm, Dudgeon said, is almost equal to the amount of the 14 other largest tax contributors in the county combined.
Dudgeon said Local Government Funds the county receives from the state have been cut from about $750,000 to about $368,000 a year, and without the revenue from the project, significant cuts would likely have been needed.
He said the county has had a good working relationship with Iberdrola Renewables, the company in charge of the project. He said there have been few complaints since the project was built.
“After a while, it becomes part of the normal landscape,” Dudgeon said of the turbines.
But Wayne Kemler, a Hoaglin Twp. trustee in Van Wert County, said concerns remain. He said several of the township’s roads were damaged during construction and have yet to be fully repaired.
Kyle Wendel, Van Wert County engineer, said Iberdrola agreed to pay for any damage made to roads during construction. Wendel said the company paid about $2.4 million to repair roads in the project area. Wendel said he expects the company to complete additional work this spring to repair additional damage that has not yet been repaired.
While he described the project in general as a headache, Wendel said he believes the company has met its promises so far.
“They made an effort to make things right for us,” he said.
When the tax issues were being negotiated, Kemler said the trustees wanted to negotiate with the wind farm independently and get a better return for the township.
Both Dudgeon and Dan Litchfield, a developer for the Blue Creek Wind Farm, said negotiating with each township and school district individually would have created a logistical nightmare that would have prevented the project from moving forward.
When the commissioners in Van Wert County approved the Alternative Energy Zone, Kemler said the townships were left without a voice. The move was made possible because of state legislation designed to promote alternative energy in Ohio.
“The state of Ohio took the ability away from us with this wind farm,” Kemler said.
Despite a much smaller population, Kemler said the project has been controversial there as well.
“It’s one of those deals where, if you’re for it, it’s the greatest thing ever, and if not, it’s a pain,” he said.
‘No need for delay’
In Champaign County, Tuesday’s 4 to 3 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court is unlikely to alleviate tensions between supporters and opponents. Mike Speerschneider, a spokesman from Everpower, said construction could begin as early as next year.
In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Judith Lanzinger overruled arguments from Union Neighbors United, a group of residents who opposed the turbines. Lanzinger argued the siting board had met its responsibilities in allowing both sides to be heard on the issue. She said some issues may merit further study, but the board set 70 conditions that Buckeye must abide by in order to continue with the project. Any changes would require additional hearings, she said.
“Contrary to the dissent’s argument, the public was provided a full opportunity for hearing, and further hearings may be held if significant changes are made to the certificate… We now hold that the board acted within its authority in granting Buckeye’s certificate based on its 70 conditions,” Lanzinger wrote. “There is no need for delay.”
Speerschneider said the company has worked with both state and local authorities to alleviate concerns.
“We’ve worked pretty hard to develop the project in a way that respects the community and the regulatory process,” Speerschneider said.
Three of the justices disagreed, arguing that safety and financial concerns should have been resolved before a certificate for construction was issued.
Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton cited blade shear, in which a blade would fly off a turbine. She argued information Buckeye provided was for a smaller turbine than will be used, and she said no calculation exists for the turbines that will be used. Still, she said, the siting board staff signed off on the proposal.
“Issues are not to be settled after construction is approved, much less by unaccountable staff members without public scrutiny or judicial review,” Stratton wrote. “Yet that is precisely what the board, and now the majority, has allowed.”
Speerschneider argued the company project has undergone extensive review to ensure the safety of residents and said, although wind farms have existed in the U.S. for years, there is no record of anyone being injured in that kind of scenario.
Still, the court’s decision did little to alleviate the concerns of some local officials, including Champaign County Prosecutor Nick Selvaggio.
He said the majority’s decision did little to protect the financial interests of the county and townships if wind farm ceases to operate.
He argued that testimony showed it could cost as much as $300,000 to decommission a single turbine, the siting board required a bond of only $5,000 for each turbine. Selvaggio said little evidence was presented that explained why the board decided on the $5,000 figure and hinted at the direction the dispute may take next.
“It is reasonable to infer that the lack of financial protection for county and township interests will certainly play a consequential role in the county commission’s determination of whether Champaign County, or parts thereof, should be declared an ‘Alternative Energy Zone,’ and whether the Payment in Lieu of Tax program is an equitable alternative to traditional forms of taxation,” he said.
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