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With wind farms, property rights issues deserve careful review

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission is in the early stages of addressing a thorny issue: At what point does economic activity on one piece of property infringe upon the rights of neighboring property owners?

At issue is whether the state should impose new regulations on wind turbines. This issue warrants careful review without a rush to judgment.

For many property owners in rural areas, leasing their land to wind power companies provides additional income, allowing them to enjoy a better quality of life. Few would condemn those who make money through honest means. In most cases, such leases would simply be viewed as a transaction that mutually benefits both parties.

The problem with wind turbines, however, is that neighboring properties can be negatively impacted. In some cases, turbines have been installed within a stone’s throw of houses on adjoining land. Needless to say, those homeowners aren’t thrilled. They don’t get additional income, but are now living with noise that some compare to the sound of airplane engines, along with obstructed views and an associated reduction in the value of their own property.

Currently, affected property owners can file nuisance lawsuits; perhaps that alone is sufficient. But some landowners, including those involved with the Oklahoma Property Rights Association, argue the state should impose minimum set-backs to prevent turbines from being installed within a certain distance of a home. The association also believes state regulators should require wind farm operations to disassemble turbines after they are decommissioned. Reportedly, shuttered turbines have been left to rust and fall to pieces in other states. Images of abandoned turbines in Hawaii have been widely shared on the Internet.

The Corporation Commission’s public utility division is now holding meetings to seek public input on the placement of wind farms and the regulation of rooftop solar panels. Among the issues under discussion: What kinds of notification should landowners near wind farms get before projects can begin? Should Oklahoma law for the decommissioning of wind farms be strengthened? Also under review are the impact of wind farms on wildlife and property values, and the economic benefits of wind farms.

Property rights concerns extend beyond the construction of wind farms. Most wind projects are in rural areas located far from a major transmission line. Thus, the installation of turbines often requires installation of a new transmission line across many miles of land.

The Plains & Eastern Clean Line is one such project. It will deliver wind energy from the Oklahoma Panhandle region to Arkansas, Tennessee and other markets in the Mid-South and Southeast. Backers of that new power line are currently hosting a series of meetings to answer landowner questions and share information. Meetings during late July are scheduled for Mooreland, Laverne and Mulhall, with additional meetings planned for August.

A reasonable balance must be struck between allowing people to use their property to earn a living by legal means, and protecting others’ ability to preserve the value of their hard-earned investment in adjoining property. An undiluted “not in my backyard” approach to wind turbines would be a mistake, but wind farm critics have raised valid objections.

The Corporation Commission should give those critics a fair hearing and work to address any legal shortcomings that may exist, while also working to keep burdensome regulation to a minimum.