A dispute over a proposed wind farm in northeastern St. Croix County has blown a huge hole in the normally tight-knit fabric of the farming community where the project’s developer hopes to build the $250 million project.
That may be the only thing opponents and advocates in the town of Forest agree on about the Highland Wind Farm, which would consist of up to 44 wind turbines, each nearly 500 feet tall to the tip of the highest blade, generating a total of 102.5 megawatts of electricity.
“It has pitted family members against family members and neighbors against neighbors in many instances,” said Forest town Chairman Jaime Junker, who gained the post when the entire three-person Town Board was recalled in 2011 over its support of the wind farm.
Town resident Carol Johnson, a project advocate whose house would be about a mile from the nearest turbine, used almost the exact same words to describe the “horrendous” tension that exists between supporters and opponents of the project.
Essentially, the issue comes down to a debate between those who are excited about a major renewable energy investment in the community and those who fear wind turbines will harm the health and quality of life of nearby residents.
Both sides have had cause for celebration and despair in the three years since the project was proposed. The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin rejected a permit for the Highland project in February over questions regarding noise, but reversed itself in September after the developer, Emerging Energies of Wisconsin, addressed the concerns and reapplied for the permit.
Attorneys for the town of Forest filed a motion Nov. 14 asking the PSC to reconsider its approval, and the commission has 30 days to decide if it will rehear the matter. If the request is denied, the town would have 30 days to file an appeal in circuit court.
Town of Forest resident Brenda Salseg, a spokeswoman for Forest Voice, a group that opposes the project, is convinced the Highland Wind Farm will harm property values and cause debilitating health problems for some town residents.
To make their own determination about the legitimacy of wind opponent health claims, Salseg and her husband went so far as to visit the Brown County home of a couple who publicly had complained of ear pain, headaches and an inability to sleep after the Shirley Wind Farm began operating in their neighborhood three years ago.
“About 20 to 25 minutes into the visit, my husband started experiencing dizziness, and I started feeling pressure like a head cold coming on. After 45 minutes, we both were very uncomfortable and felt a strong desire to get out of there,” said Salseg, who came away convinced that wind turbines shouldn’t be built in populated areas.
“There is not a doubt in my mind that these people are telling the truth,” she said.
Yet a series of 2012 tests requested by the PSC of homes near the Shirley Wind Farm, also developed by Emerging Energies, found no evidence linking audible or low frequency sound from wind turbines to health impacts, according to Clean Wisconsin, the state’s largest environmental group.
“I think it’s unfortunate that people become fearful of things they don’t really understand and then that fear becomes reality, even in the face of evidence that proves otherwise,” said Bill Rakocy, manager of Emerging Energies. “There is an awful lot of good supporting documentation from the scientific community that shows there is no basis for these health claims.”
Rakocy suggested the sound generated by wind turbines is comparable to the hum of fluorescent lights or a refrigerator running.
Katie Nekola, a lawyer for Clean Wisconsin, stressed that none of the people who have complained about negative health effects from the Shirley project have any medical validation there is anything wrong with them.
“I’m not saying they’re not experiencing what they say they’re experiencing, but there isn’t a causal link that anybody can find,” Nekola said.
Johnson, the Highland project backer from the town of Forest, referred to it as the “nocebo effect,” and insisted it’s time to stop debating the so-called wind turbine syndrome, something she said studies show only manifests itself in people who believe it exists.
“It’s just been smoke and mirrors. I absolutely do not believe the health claims,” said Johnson, who worked for a Twin Cities wind developer for many years.
Putting up a fight
The Forest Town Board, however, remains convinced the health effects are real and is doing everything in its power to stop the controversial Highland project from blowing into the town of about 600 residents.
Junker, the town chairman, said he was moved by the testimony of three neighbors of the Shirley project at PSC hearings that they were forced to vacate their homes because of headaches, ringing in the ears and feelings of uneasiness. The same folks said their symptoms would vanish when they left the area near the turbines.
“The typical resident in the town of Forest is sitting back and saying, ‘If three families had to leave their homes with an eight-turbine project, what’s going to happen to us with a 41-turbine project?’ ” Junker said.
The concerns have prompted the Town Board to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the Highland project and to pursue a plan that would cost an additional $150,000 to $300,000 to develop its own sound monitoring system. The equipment, which would be placed at residents’ houses, would provide evidence in the event that the turbines exceed the legal noise limits of 50 decibels during the day and 45 decibels at night.
“Our goal is to prevent another Shirley, Wisconsin, disaster,” he said.
Junker called it a proactive approach to protecting town residents.
But Johnson criticized the board for falling for discredited anti-wind propaganda put out by the fossil fuel industry and then responding by being irresponsible with the town checkbook to further their cause.
“If there’s not an end to it soon, they’ll bankrupt the town,” Johnson said, noting that a defeat of the project also would cost the town payments from the developer reportedly totaling between more than $100,000 a year plus up to eight permanent jobs and a projected 100 jobs during the construction phase.
Backing clean energy
Clean Wisconsin, the state’s largest environmental organization, supports wind energy development because it offsets the need to burn coal and other fossil fuels, a process that generates air and water pollution and contributes to global warming, Nekola said.
Developing renewable energy sources also creates jobs and reduces the state’s dependence on energy sources imported from other states and countries, she said, adding that Wisconsin has lagged behind neighboring states in harnessing the power of wind.
The Highland project would produce enough clean, safe energy to power about 29,000 homes, Nekola said.
Emerging Energies officials also are driven by the environmental benefits of pursuing renewable energy sources, Rakocy said.
“I just think we all need to do our part to take care of this Earth,” he said.
Salseg argued that environmental groups are so blinded by their devotion to the concept of renewable energy that they’re ignoring legitimate health side effects associated with giant wind turbines, which she stressed are nothing like people’s romantic notion of the small family farm windmills that dot America’s heartland.
“To them we’re just renewable road kill, or collateral damage,” said Salseg, whose house is about a quarter-mile from the nearest proposed turbine in the Highland project. “I’m not saying I’m against this kind of renewable energy; I’m just saying these giant industrial wind turbines can’t be placed next to people’s homes.”
In Wisconsin, siting regulations require wind turbines to be at least 1,250 feet, or slightly less than a quarter-mile from the nearest residence, although state Sen. Frank Lasee, a De Pere Republican whose district includes the Shirley project, has called for increasing the buffer zone to 1.25 miles. Lasee also recently introduced a bill that would allow homeowners who live near wind turbines to sue for damages related to health issues or the loss of property value or profits.
Salseg, who lives on a 40-acre plot that has been in her family for more than 130 years, fears her family could end up like some of the Shirley project neighbors – trapped in a home that makes them sick but they are unable to sell.
“Everything we’ve got is wrapped up in our 40 acres, and we stand to lose it all,” she said. “It’s just mind-blowing that this can happen and we can’t protect our property rights.”
Johnson countered that it’s the folks who want to host a turbine on their property – and collect thousands of dollars annually in lease fees – whose property rights are being threatened by all of the wind blocks put up by Forest Voice and the Town Board.
She believes the opposition is fueled in large part by jealousy from residents whose properties weren’t selected as turbine sites.
A farmer who wants to stabilize his income by putting a wind turbine on his property should have that right, as long as they follow state siting standards, Johnson said.
“It’s not any different than any other thing you’d put on your property,” she said. “It’s just another kind of farming – you’re harvesting the wind.”
Two area Republican legislators indicated they have reservations about the Highland proposal.
State Rep. John Murtha of Baldwin, who represented the town of Forest before redistricting, said he normally would be thrilled about a business proposing such a major investment in western Wisconsin, but he is wary about the potential health impacts on nearby residents and how the turbines will blend in with their surroundings.
“I don’t think anybody has any idea how out of place that’s going to look,” he said, referring to the series of 500-foot turbines spread around 26,550 acres of farmland. “I can’t get convinced that this is good for Forest and the area up there.”
Until more is known about the effect of the sound and light flickering associated with wind turbines, Murtha said he believes they should be placed far from homes.
State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls said area residents feel as though their voice hasn’t been heard in regard to the Highland project, and she supports opening up wind-siting rules to allow state residents to express concerns and suggest changes.
Despite the neighborhood flap and all the legal maneuvering, Rakocy vowed to press ahead with the Highland project, which began when Emerging Energies officials identified the town of Forest as an ideal spot because of its historical pattern of strong winds, nearby power transmission lines and low population density.
Emerging Energies is in negotiations with suppliers of turbine components, and Rakocy said he hopes to begin construction of the project in 2014.
“We would certainly expect to be fully commissioned and operational before 2016,” he said.
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