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Goodhue County shies from rescinding support of wind project

RED WING – After a spirited debate centering around fears of lawsuits and who is in charge of a major Goodhue County wind project, the county board on Tuesday tabled a resolution that would have pulled its support for the 78-megawatt development.

The board tabled the resolution after it became evident that three commissioners would not vote to rescind a 2008 county resolution of support for the controversial project, which is now owned by a company called New Era Wind Farm.

But the board did unanimously direct County Attorney Stephen Betcher to ask the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to look closer into whether the project still qualifies as a Community-Based Energy Development project. C-BED status gives investors and landowners more money for the power the turbines could produce.

County board members are hoping the state will help clear up many of the questions local people have about the project. If the state drops its C-BED support, the county board could bring back the resolution to rescind.

County Board Chairman Dick Samuelson said he asked Betcher to look into the 2008 resolution of support because the project’s development company has changed ownership and name several times. Most recently, it was named New Era Wind Farm and is now owned by Peter Mastic.

Betcher said the state, not the county, must approve C-BED status. But the resolution of support is needed as part of that approval. The county has given that, and that status has been granted by the state, so it’s out of the county’s hands, he said. He doesn’t think the state would be “willing to attach any legal significance to a 2012 Goodhue County Board decision changing its position” of support, he said.

But rescinding it might get the attention of the project owners. Rescinding “could lead to civil lawsuits seeking damages for the action if the project fails for unrelated reasons,” he wrote in his opinion. The county’s insurance carrier has indicated it wouldn’t cover the cost of defending the county in a lawsuit or pay any damages.

Commissioner Ron Allen, however, moved to rescind the support.

“This is not what I voted for in 2008,” Allen said.

Instead of local investors, the project was owned by companies from Texas and India before coming back to Peter Mastic, who has a Goodhue post office box and said he wants to open a store there. The whole project has changed, Allen said, so he wants the county on record opposing C-BED.

Commissioner Ted Seifert seconded that, saying that because it is not the same company, the new owners should reapply for county support.

But the possibility of legal losses loomed large for commissioners Jim Bryan and Dan Rechtzigel.

“This is opening up the county to seven-figure damages,” Bryant said. He favored waiting because “I truly don’t think this project will go.”

Rechtzigel said the county had tried to assert more authority over wind projects but that was rejected by the court. He fears that if the county rescinds its supportn, instead of a slap on the wrist, “they will chop our hands off and give our wallet to the other side,” he said.

It was evident there were two commissioners for rescinding and two against when Samuelson stepped in. He said he also opposes the resolution because of Betcher’s research and recommendations.

While project opponents didn’t get all they wanted, the tabling and letter to the state should help, said Kristi Rosenquist. She hopes it will force the state to look closer at the original resolution.