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Public hearing leaves county commissioners with tough decision

EL RENO – For nearly three hours on Saturday morning Canadian County residents voiced their opinion on creating a planning and zoning board for unincorporated parts of the county and whether a proposed wind farm project should be built.

Following the civil – yet passionate – public hearing, the county’s three commissioners were left with the decision on whether or not to call a countywide vote on creating a new board to oversee planning and zoning.

“There is at least two sides to this and each side has very strong arguments,” County Commissioner Jack Stewart said at the start of Saturday’s public hearing. “At this time, I’m not sure what it is going to take to make everybody happy.”

A proposal to build a wind farm west of Piedmont has spurred the idea of creating a planning and zoning board. Opponents of the wind farm see the board as a way to regulate the construction of wind turbines while wind farm supporters said it was an example of unnecessary government control.

Residents were given three minutes each to voice their opinion on planning and zoning, but most of the comments were about the wind farm. Two lines were formed in the back of the meeting hall at Canadian Valley Technology Center in El Reno – each representing one side of the issue – and one-by-one residents walked to the front of the room to address the commissioners.

Before the public was given its chance to speak, one representative from each side of the argument was given 10 minutes to make a presentation. Piedmont resident Pam Suttles addressed the commissioners representing an anti-wind farm group and said that wind turbines posed a risk to residents because blades are prone to throw ice and even become detached from the turbine. Suttles also said allowing turbines could diminish property values, beginning a chain reaction that would attract poverty to affluent parts of Canadian County.

“We will become a welfare county,” Suttles said.

Suttles asked the commissioners to allow for a vote to at least see if county residents are in favor of planning and zoning.

“This is a democracy, we just have a right to vote,” Suttles said. “It doesn’t matter if you like planning or don’t like planning. Let us vote.”

The next presenter was Kent Dougherty, a project manager with Apex Wind Energy, the Virginia-based company proposing the 120-turbine wind farm project in Canadian County. Dougherty said the proposed wind farm project would generate $3.2 million in annual tax revenue, with over half of that going to local schools, including Piedmont and Okarche. Dougherty also said the project would create 90 long-term jobs and would not hurt future development.

“Wind farms can and do coexist with residential development,” Kent said while also referencing that 40,000 turbines are currently operating in America today.

Following the public hearing, District 1 Commissioner Phil Carson, who represents Piedmont and the proposed area for the Apex wind farm, said he was in favor of a planning and zoning commission, or at least giving the citizens of the county an opportunity to vote on the issue.

“If we don’t have some sort of planning to protect the citizens of our county, we could become who knows what kind of dumping ground for anything that the metropolitan area has planning or zoning against,” Carson said. “Then the people of our county would suffer in the future.”

Carson said he wants to call an election as soon as possible, which would be March. But the county’s other two commissioners said they wanted to take more time in reviewing the issue before possibly moving towards a vote.

“I wish we could say let the people in the unincorporated areas decide, but we can’t,” Commissioner David Anderson said. “I think that we need to be very careful about establishing a planning and zoning commission that impacts the entire county.”

Commissioner Stewart echoed Anderson’s thoughts and said a planning and zoning vote should not be rushed.

“We need to slow down and really take a look at some things,” Stewart said. “But Apex is probably going to go regardless.”