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Johnson County wind farm a step closer to reality

TECUMSEH – County commissioners unanimously approved a special use permit Tuesday that allows for construction of a $100 million wind farm in western Johnson County.

The 3-0 vote means Chicago-based Invenergy has what it needs from county government to proceed with a project south of Sterling that could include as many as 37 wind turbines and produce as much as 60 megawatts of electricity.

But the 2012-17 construction timetable laid out for commissioners by company spokesman James Williams suggests the company could be a long way from putting up turbines.

About 60 people were on hand for the half-hour discussion that preceded the vote. Perhaps a dozen of them voiced support for the project, including Adams farmer Ryan Richardson.

“We’ve got a lot of wind around here. We might as well harvest it, I think,” said Richardson, who owns land along the proposed route and stands to gain financially from an easement agreement.

Kate Ratigan, who said she’s lived about half a mile from what’s now one of the proposed turbines since 2003, voiced most of the opposition to the cluster of turbines.

“We moved out in the country, so we could enjoy the quiet and the natural view,” said Ratigan, who operates the Black Crow restaurant in Beatrice with her husband.

She came to the meeting accompanied by Beatrice attorney Robert Schafer, and was critical of several aspects of the project, including setbacks on turbines from occupied dwellings of 1,000 feet.

She thought 1.25 miles made more sense, in part because of “persistent, low frequency noise” from the rotating turbine blades.

Ratigan also wanted commissioners to delay their decision and learn more about potential effects on people, livestock and wildlife 50 miles southeast of Lincoln.

“I don’t know what the big rush is about.”

Commissioner Terry Keebler wasn’t willing to wait with action on a favorable recommendation last month from the county planning commission.

“While it’s not perfect,” he said of the wind farm prospect, “I don’t think that to delay further would bring us more scientific information.”

Invenergy’s Williams laid out the public benefits of harnessing the wind in Johnson County, including $4 million in taxes paid to the county over 20 years, 100 construction jobs and renewable energy that could handle the needs of thousands of homes.

“We’ve gotten very positive responses from landowners in working through this process,” he said.

Commissioner Bob Curry wanted to know more about the potential noise factor.

“How close do you have to be to hear them?” he asked.

Williams conceded that “there could be some noise level” at the setback distance, but when it comes to health impacts, there are scientific studies that speak to the contrary.

Scotty Gottula, commission chairman from Elk Creek, said he traveled to both Minnesota and Iowa to talk with people who lived near wind farms and came away without hearing widespread concerns.

“It just became part of their lives,” he said.

When Ratigan tried to engage him on people’s bad health experiences with wind farms in Wisconsin and elsewhere, Gottula said he wasn’t a doctor.

“I’m not seeing the federal government coming out and saying they’re going to shut them down because of very adverse effects,” he said.

Sought out after the vote, Ratigan wasn’t impressed with that argument.

“The federal government is heavily invested in promoting green energy,” she said, “and they can’t be expected to bring up those problems right now.”