DeKalb County Commissioners are struggling with serious questions about how to regulate potential wind farms in the county.
A lot of sound advice was available at a meeting Friday night in Country Meadow Elementary School, south of Ashley.
Roger McEowen, a professor in agricultural law at Iowa State University, spoke at the invitation of Concerned Citizens of DeKalb County.
The Concerned Citizens group strongly opposes wind farms. The group likely invited McEowen to speak because it knew he takes a somewhat skeptical view of wind energy.
But McEowen gave a reasonable and intelligent presentation on the topic. He brings a good sense of perspective, because he grew up in nearby Whitley County and now lives in Iowa, a leading state for wind power.
McEowen’s most important advice is that DeKalb County is too densely populated for giant wind turbines.
DeKalb County is trying to decide how much distance to require between a wind turbine and a residence. A county ordinance specifies 1,500 feet. Wind-farm developer EOSOL Americas – which has signed leases with dozens of landowners south of Ashley – says it can’t succeed unless the setback is reduced to 1,000 feet.
“On the distance issue, what we suggest is a minimum three-quarters of a mile to a mile,” McEowen said Friday night. “I think a half-mile is as close as you want to go to any structure, to avoid problems.”
He added, “If we get these far enough away from people, then we’re going to minimize landowner conflict.”
Landowners who live next to wind turbines elsewhere have complained that noise and flickering shadows bother them and keep them awake.
On a more concrete basis, McEowen cited a recent Wisconsin study showing that land next to wind generators lost 30 percent in value due to factors such as loss of view, peace and serenity. In contrast, land leased to wind turbines held steady or gained value.
“Sadly, what happens with a lot of these projects is that it tends to tear communities apart,” pitting neighbors with wind turbines against those who do not have them, he said.
McEowen does not oppose wind farms across the board. They can work fine in places such as Kansas or western Indiana, where people are few and far between.
In any case, the entire issue could disappear soon, McEowen suggested. Federal tax credits that make building wind farms attractive expire at the end of this year. Chances of renewing the tax breaks seem slim in a Congress that could be divided or Republican-dominated after the election. Without those incentives, areas with marginal winds such as northeast Indiana could become impractical.
McEowen said DeKalb County would stand on solid legal ground if it enacted a longer setback for wind turbines or even banned wind farms entirely.
DeKalb County leaders now face the challenge of finding solid political ground. A significant number of property owners say they should have the right to make money by leasing land to a wind farm. However, the number of residents who don’t want to live near wind turbines seems to be greater.
Twenty years ago, DeKalb County divided bitterly over the coming of a steel mill. The county made the right choice by welcoming Steel Dynamics because the reward – roughly 1,000 jobs today – was much greater. EOSOL says its wind farm would create 1,350 jobs during construction, but only 13 permanent jobs, along with supplemental income to a few dozen landowners.
Based on McEowen’s advice, wind farms belong in sparsely populated areas where they bother almost no one. DeKalb County clearly does not fit that profile.
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