CORPUS CHRISTI – The Sinton Independent School District has sued the city of Sinton over plans to install two wind turbines at the high school campus.
The lawsuit, filed Monday, asks a state district judge for an injunction allowing the turbine project to move forward.
The district wants to build the turbines for energy savings and math and science lessons, but time may be running out. A $974,000 federal grant being used to pay for the bulk of the project stipulates construction must finish by April 30.
Superintendent Steve VanMatre said he has asked for an extension. The State Energy Conservation Office, which administers the grant program, has asked for a conference call with the district on Wednesday. VanMatre said he doesn’t know whether the office plans to grant an extension, cancel the grant, or simply gather information.
The lawsuit follows decisions by the Sinton Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Adjustment to reject the district’s request for a variance to the city’s wind turbine ordinance. The ordinance limits the height and noise of turbines. The boards acted after hearing from residents concerned about noise, property values and spending taxpayer funds on wind energy projects.
The lawsuit asks the judge to void those decisions, saying the board violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when they met Feb. 21.
At the meeting, a Caller-Times reporter objected to the boards’ closed sessions because the Open Meetings Act has no exemption allowing a city board to debate the merits of a variance in private, nor vote in private, as the planning commission did. The city attorney at the time, Heather Meister, would not cite a justification for the closed sessions.
The lawsuit incorporates the objections of the newspaper’s editorial board, which wrote that “the two boards’ secretive actions left the public uninformed as to why the zoning was denied.”
An attorney representing the city in the wind turbine dispute says the statements in the lawsuit aren’t correct and he believes the closed meetings were legal.
“There’s a lot of facts,” attorney James McKibben said. “I don’t think I know everything about it, and I don’t think the school district people do either.”
The district argues that even if the meetings were legal, the city’s wind turbine ordinance doesn’t apply because it’s aimed at smaller residential turbines. The school turbines would be about 155 feet tall – larger than residential turbines but smaller than industrial turbines at wind farms.
The lawsuit also says the Board of Adjustment didn’t have authority to rule on the variance requests and that any appeal of the zoning commission decision should instead have been heard by the City Council. Moreover, courts have held that city zoning laws don’t apply to school districts except in matters of health and safety, the district claims.
But McKibben said plenty of court cases have established areas where zoning laws do apply to schools.
While some council members have tried to let the district’s plan move forward, other members and city officials are upset that the district didn’t approach the city about the project in 2009 when it was first being considered. They feel the district tried to ram the project through City Hall without deference to neighboring property owners and city officials.
Mayor Pete Gonzales pointed to a document from the State Energy Conservation Office that said the city should have been involved in an environmental analysis of the turbine proposal. The office later issued an apology to the district, saying the document should have referred to the district and not the city.
The case has been assigned to 343rd District Judge Janna Whatley.
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