A dispute over a proposed wind farm in western Wisconsin’s St. Croix County has blown a 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.