It has become a defining issue in our county – two sharp divisions have formed and there appears to be little common ground. Those who oppose the construction of wind farms see them as a plague on an otherwise beautifully flat Northwest Ohio landscape. Those who are in favor see them as the beginning of a green energy utopia. And both see the other side’s position as Quixotic (to bring in the most famous literary use of windmills) if not downright sinister.
The issue is defining because we are ground zero for wind energy in Ohio. There are no other wind farms in operation in the state besides the ones in Van Wert and Paulding Counties. The issue has become more fevered with the proposed construction of Iberdrola’s Dog Creek project, which is to be located entirely within the Lincolnview School District.
The new mills are to be constructed in four townships – Ridge, Hoaglin, Washington, and Jackson – south of US 224 and north of US 30.
Iberdrola’s operational wind farm (Blue Creek) was built while the county had an Alternative Energy Zone (AEZ) in effect. The AEZ set tax rates at a level favorable to the wind companies. County commissioners can create an AEZ without input from the townships, and that was exactly how the initial AEZ was implemented before any of us were in office.
Early in 2013, the townships, through their elected trustees, approached us about eliminating the AEZ and giving them control of the taxing issue. Normally, if a business wants special tax treatment upon locating in the county, the township trustees negotiate any tax abatements. The question was asked as to why wind farms should be any different? The windmills are not to be located throughout the entire county but in a particular area where the residents are represented by a local government. It was a good question.
After several meetings where we sought input from anyone who could tell us anything about wind farms, we eliminated the AEZ. This does not mean we made it so windmills could not be built in our county. If a farmer signs a lease, a windmill can be built so long as standards for setbacks are met. The catch is that Iberdrola says it cannot afford to build and operate windmills, even with the generous government subsidies, without the special tax treatment.
The only discussion is, in fact, tax abatement – if there should be any at all and what it should be if there is. The four townships have formed their own committee to discuss the issue. Lincolnview will likely be brought into the discussion at some point.
Some have accused us of punting on this contentious issue by putting the tax question in the hands of the townships. This mostly comes from the pro-wind side of the argument who see us, the county commissioners, as a board that can override what the townships want to do and re-institute an AEZ. Iberdrola’s representatives ask us when we are going to do that literally every time they talk to us. (For the last time – NO!)
The township trustees wanted control of this issue and for good reason. They are elected officials and any proposed wind farm would be local, meaning not throughout the entire county. They know their communities and are represent the people who will live among the mills. They are answerable to the taxpayers, the school, and the farmers who have property leased. If they are not representing the will of their constituents, they won’t have their positions long.
A meeting at Lincolnview a few weeks ago put the sentiments of the anti-wind crowd on display. It would be fair to say they dominated the debate. The school administration, very much in support of the new project, got its first exposure to what is becoming a well-organized campaign that presents not just sentiments but hard facts. Not to say they were right about everything, but Iberdrola didn’t have good answers multiple times and backed away from some of its initial assertions about electric rate savings and subsidies per megawatt produced.
The pro-crowd will need to organize and become more vocal if there is to be a serious debate. They likely need to drop the narrative about lower electricity rates (how is your bill lately?) and global warming (how was your winter?). Those two arguments aren’t going to win in these townships, not in the near future. What could win is pointing to not only tax revenue for the school but the marketing draw of wind farms to green energy-loving businesses and reduced property taxes for residents. These issues aren’t being considered in the discussions I’ve heard.
I’m not taking sides and neither are my cohorts in the Commissioners’ office. We see our place in this instance as protecting property rights and fostering open and local government. Everyone likes the concept of local government until the local government doesn’t agree with their position – then they like big government to intercede on their behalf. Until there is an over-riding countywide issue involved, the one school and the four townships should decide whether or not to grant special tax treatment. This is what local government is.
This and other Wolfrum columns can be read at toddwolfrum.com.