Two local controversies could have turned ugly, but instead they ended last week without any emotional bloodshed.
It’s natural to focus on the winners, but people on the other sides are anything but losers. By backing down instead of fighting to the bitter end, they set an example that could teach our leaders on a national scale.
DeKalb County’s war over wind farms ended quietly when one side failed to show up for the final battle. In a meeting at the courthouse Wednesday, the county Plan Commission endorsed a policy requiring wind turbines to be at least 1,300 feet from neighboring property lines. That’s nearly a quarter-mile, so it becomes virtually impossible to build a wind farm in DeKalb County.
The County Commissioners are expected to approve the new setback rule Monday, pounding the last nail into the coffin of wind farms for the county.
Only the opponents of wind farms attended Wednesday’s Plan Commission meeting. County officials heard not a peep of protest from an estimated 80-plus landowners who reportedly signed agreements with a wind-energy company. Those landowners had hoped to lease their properties for wind turbine sites at a reported $5,000 per year for each machine.
Supporters of wind farms correctly read the prevailing winds against them and gave up their hopes of easy money.
Last summer, wind-farm advocates were asserting their right to use their land as they pleased. But property rights have limits. You can’t unreasonably detract from your neighbor’s enjoyment of his property.
Over the decades, landowners in northwestern DeKalb County already had profited in another way – by selling tracts to nonfarmers who wanted to build homes. That strategy took advantage of their land’s best asset – its scenic hills and woodlands. But by inviting so many people to move into the rural area, landowners made it unsuitable for a wind farm, which needs wide-open spaces.
The nonfarmers who bought scenic lots and built expensive homes objected to the idea that their scenery would be ruined by giant towers.
Eventually, the pro-wind-farm landowners reportedly told the County Commissioners privately that it was not worth tearing the county apart in a fight over wind energy. They’re right.
The wind farm saga has at least one thing in common with a battle over proposed apartments in Auburn. Both situations pitted landowners against their own “customers” – people who bought land from them in the past.
In Auburn, developers of the Bridgewater neighborhood wanted to build an apartment complex on land they originally intended for single-family homes. For a variety of reasons, including the recession, homes aren’t selling as fast as the developers hoped. They thought apartments might bring them some return on their investment.
But Bridgewater developers already had sold homes to people who did not expect apartments next door. Existing Bridgewater residents cried foul.
After a failed attempt to pacify opponents by tweaking the apartment layout, Bridgewater’s developers dropped their plans a week ago.
Credit the developers, led by Steel Dynamics Inc. founder Keith Busse, for knowing when to concede gracefully.
Fortunately, Busse showed 20 years ago that he also knows when to stay the course. Busse’s plan to build northeast Indiana’s first steel mill, near Butler, ran into a firestorm of protest. Busse held firm, and county officials supported him. The payoff turned out to be even better than promised, as Steel Dynamics grew into a major national company. Today, DeKalb benefits from more than 1,000 good jobs at SDI and its related companies.
In contrast, the reward for turning DeKalb County into a wind farm would have been much smaller – hundreds of temporary jobs, many of them held by outside contractors, followed by relatively few permanent jobs and some supplemental income for local farmers.
We should be grateful to wind-farm supporters for reading the writing on the wall and not putting us through a protracted battle. In the case of Bridgewater, Busse showed that he knows the meaning of an old saying, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
Or, as Kenny Rogers put it in simpler terms, it’s important to “know when to fold ’em.”
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