Often contentious discussions over two MidAmerican Energy Company (MEC) 345,000 volt (345 kV) substations earlier this year forced O’Brien County Supervisors into creating one all – encompassing ordinance, targeted at regulating every conceivable energy installation any utility company might build in the County.
The two 345 kV facilities in question are the Highland wind farm transmission substation and the MVP #3 switching substation northeast of Sanborn. Because of landowner concerns expressed during those April and May discussions, the Board understood then the possibility that another ordinance would be necessary.
This entire debacle came to light when Kevin and Jen Mars attended an early April O’Brien County Supervisor’s meeting to express their growing concerns over the wind farm substation location. At that time, the exact site wasn’t confirmed.
“You guys don’t really realize it, but the proposed substation site is very close in proximity to my farm,” said Kevin.
“It’s kind of in our back yards,” Jen confirmed.
“So, we’re in here today to express our opinions, guys, about what we can do differently about this situation. Indications are that the fence is going to be 700′ from my house. The actual structures are only going to be 800′ from my house. I think that’s awfully close to my house for a substation.”
“We’ve asked them all along,” Jen continued, “to give us the same consideration as they would for a wind turbine tower which is 1,200′ separation from a farmstead.”
“They told us that this is the preferred location. They were 90 % sure. We’ve heard 99 % sure,” Kevin added.
Called the ENERGY UTILITY ORDINANCE, its purpose provides for the regulation of owners/developers engaged in the construction, erection, placement, location and maintenance of energy utility devices, buildings or structures in O’Brien County. It’s meant to preserve and protect public health and safety without significantly increasing the cost or decreasing the efficiency of energy utility systems.
The ordinance applies to any public or private solar, electrical, natural gas, propane, oil, fuel and energy providers that shall at a minimum provide an energy source or service to the public that’s essential to the public health, safety and general welfare.
Facilities including generating and switching substations, electrical transmission facilities, electrical generating facilities, repeaters, antennas, transmitters and receivers, commercial solar panel fields, natural gas border stations, propane pipelines, natural gas mains, oil pipelines, refineries for any energy source related to the furnishing of energy utility service to the public must follow the ordinance.
Then in mid July stories appeared in area newspapers about a possibility of a major crude oil pipeline that’s proposed to cross O’Brien County in Caledonia and Union Townships. This complicated their task even more. Though not likely, a possibility suddenly exists for locating of a crude oil pumping station in the county.
Particular regulations that energy companies must adhere to include things like maintaining minimum separation distances from occupied dwellings to energy facilities, shielding energy facilities with foliage or manufactured materials, noise abatement measures, and interior focused security lighting.
Deliberations over the wording of this complex ordinance, and which stipulations were to be included, started months ago. Planning Director for the Northwest Iowa Planning and Development Commission Steve Hallgren assisted the County. Input for these provisions also came from county officials and other stakeholders potentially impacted by the regulations.
Besides Hallgren, others present for this preliminary roll-out of the new ordinance at Tuesday Supervisor’s meeting included Steve Ambrose. Ambrose is the Project Manager for the MVP transmission expansion projects that MidAmerican Energy is sponsoring in Iowa along with ITC Midwest.
County auditor Barb Rohwer emailed Ambrose the text of the proposed ordinance the week before. Rohwer asked Ambrose to express his concerns that he made during a phone conversation.
Ambrose began, “There’s one thing that I noticed in here in areas where wind energy is addressed. Is wind energy being treated differently from other industries, the general public or anyone else? And I have looked at it and I have to say that it is.
“For example, we typically would locate a sheet metal building or out building as part of our operations and maintenance effort. By reading your ordinance, it has certain requirements you wouldn’t have for other industries like hog confinements. So it’s a little out of character in that respect.”
“We do have restrictions on them,” advised supervisor Tom Farnsworth.
“We can’t regulate agriculture. That’s number one.” said Chairman Jim DeBoom.
“From looking at this, is this consistent with how you are treating other buildings in other industries or other properties? I think that’s the biggest thing that I see here that’s of concern,” said Ambrose.
Hallgren explained some of the energy related facilities that were in their deliberations and then said, “I’m not saying this in defense of the county. The original intent when we created this was there may be other accessory uses out there. They are all rolled into the same ordinance. Yes, there are some that may be less intensive and there are some accessories that are more intensive. I think we are treating all equally across the board. We are not segregating out any type of accessory.”
My question would be: “What about a salvage yard and its requirements? Do they have the same requirements?” asked Ambrose.
“That’s one question that we get because there are some around,” replied DeBoom.
“We originally started to consider this as an electrical utility ordinance early on, said Hallgren, but then we changed it to an energy utility ordinance. We didn’t want to just pick on one particular utility, which wind is one singular type of energy. We had that conversation. This ordinance addresses all energy forms.”
“Some of the counties that have zoning are having wind mills come in. Some of their zoning laws are not even covering them,” said Farnsworth.
“Zoning laws are often more lenient than what we have here,” said DeBoom.
“That’s why several counties that have zoning have implemented separate ordinances for wind energy on top of their zoning rules,” said Hallgren.
“Several have. Several have also put in a section within their existing regulations,” said Ambrose. “We are not in opposition to what you guys are trying to do. There just has to be some level of fair treatment for one industry versus another.”
“We are just trying to protect our landowners,” replied Deboom.
“You need rules and regulations to do this, and I know this is something new to the county. It’s very important to the landowners. There is no question there should be protections in place. But, you don’t want to put in protections that are too punishing to certain industries while others get a free pass. That’s where you can get into trouble is where there is a big disparity is the consistency between industries,” said Ambrose.
“It’s just that we’re looking out for the protection of the residents in the county. Any proposed accessory to be built in close proximity to a residential dwelling, then we want some sort of buffer around it,” said Hallgren.
“We’re trying to prevent that we don’t get into a situation like we did this spring,” said Farnsworth.
“Again, we’re not opposed to what you are trying to accomplish here,” Ambrose reiterated. “One normal approach is to have zoning applied to a covered space like an out building. O’Brien County doesn’t have zoning. But, you want to have something to fall back on.”
“This is what we are trying to do is to have guidance,” said Farnsworth. “Well, zoning has its pros and cons. We’ve been talking this over extensively. It isn’t the answer to everything. We’re trying to do this in steps because we’re doing things we’ve never done before.”
“We’re trying to stay out of the zoning game,” Hallgren summed up several minutes later. “The way we look at this it is a protection ordinance for neighboring properties.”
The Board then agreed that Hallgren would incorporate some of Ambrose’s suggestions and comments into a revised draft of the ordinance. Then it would be presented to the County Attorney for a legal review. The ordinance will come back and then go through the normal public hearing process for approving new ordinances.
In a related matter, the recent approval for the RISE Grant to the City of Primghar was discussed at the Monday, Sept. 8, 2014 Primghar City Council meeting. A 16.7 acre area east of the fairgrounds is to be built and zoned as a heavy industrial area.
Primghar City Administrator Marlene Anderson reported to the Council, “We did get our RISE Grant application approved for the industrial park expansion. The grant is for $292,656.
“That will cover street and storm sewer installation. We could consider getting some of the utilities done yet this fall. Or, we could wait until January or February and then bid this entire project as one.”
“Is there any other word from MidAmerican Energy on their needs?” asked Mayor Kurt Edwards.
“There is nothing new. Soon as the streets are in, MidAmerican wants to start building,” Anderson reported.
Edwards asked what MidAmerican was still interested in buying. Anderson replied, “The last I knew it was 1and – lots. I know Primghar Advancement Corporation is going to work with them on some possible tax abatements.”
When Anderson was asked later about the number of employees MidAmerican Energy will have at this operations and maintenance facility, she replied, “MidAmerican will have two employees based here and Siemens Energy will have 15 personnel here.”
Siemens Energy is building the 214 wind turbine generators at their Hutchinson, KS facility and 642 blades will come from their Fort Madison, Iowa blade manufacturing plant.
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