Taking landowner and other stakeholder input to amend the O’Brien County Wind Ordinance # 22 was the focus at a recent O’Brien County supervisors meeting. Amending the ordinance stems from often heated discussions earlier this spring surrounding two new substations involved in the Highland Wind Farm project..
After opening the public hearing, Chairman Jim DeBoom explained the purpose for amending the ordinance to a crowded supervisor’s chambers audience made up of landowners, County Attorney Micah Schreurs, and MidAmerican Energy Company (MEC) Wind Energy Supervisor Adam Jablonski.
“What this is about is we’re re-defining different sections of the original ordinance in an effort to make things clearer and creating a new Section 10 dealing with accessory structures and to better regulate setback distances. Does anybody have any comments?” DeBoom questioned.
Speaking on behalf of MEC, Jablonski said, “We are affected by this due to our projects here in the County. NW Iowa has a great wind resource. We do have an interest in this. We’re not against anything that’s in this amendment. We hope to clarify this and make it more black and white.”
Jablonski noted a few key points. He said that MEC believes that the County already has the authority to impose additional conditions like buffers and setbacks in the original wording of the ordinance.
Because MEC had received the building permit for the Highland wind farm back in August of 2013, Jablonski noted, “We’d ask for an exception for this previously permitted project. We’d ask for that exception for the project we are currently building.
“We believe this all came about due to issues with the substation earlier this year. I think that’s the issue here and why this ordinance revision came into existence and the utility ordinance that’s still being created.”
Jablonski moved on to discuss setbacks and their application. “As far as setbacks pertaining to outbuildings in different situations, we think those may have different impacts in substations. So when you include setbacks and buffering in one all-encompassing energy utility ordinance, including every form of energy installation, it may not be appropriate,” Jablonski suggested.
Jablonski’s next concern addressed where the 1,200′ measurement points for setback restrictions between farmsteads and substations are taken. “We think that measurement should be taken from the edge of an occupied dwelling, like a house, to any particular structure in a substation,” Jablonski noted. “We’d like to see this clarified.”
Jablonski moved on to discuss when projects are built more than 1,200′ from the nearest occupied farmstead. “Then would there be no buffering requirement? Any separation setback distance 1,200 feet or less is when a buffering strip requirement would kick in,” said Jablonski.
Summing up, Jablonski explained, “With respect to buffering requirements in here, we’re okay with them. The only thing is that in certain situations around substations where high voltage power lines come in overhead or underground, we’re not allowed to put a natural buffer in due to National Electric Code clearance rules and regulations. It’s just not allowed and not a standard industry practice.”
Section 20, Lincoln Township landowner Keith Groendyke spoke up next. Groendyke’s farmstead is across the road and to the north of the MEC MVP # 3 switching substation that’s to be built in Section 21.
“Will these buffer requirements be in effect for this other substation that’s about to be built?” Groendyke questioned.
“That’s really a part of that other ordinance we are still putting together,” replied DeBoom.
“Are they going to have 1,200′ setback requirements too?” Groendyke asked.
“We’re working on them,” DeBoom confirmed.
Sanborn area resident and former county supervisor John Haack asked, “What do you see as the major changes to the original ordinance? How is that changed? What’s significant? Buffering and all that I understand. That’s not a problem. Have we changed distances? What, significantly, is changed, if anything?”
DeBoom replied, “The big change was to make sure we had something in there like for the electrical substation that we didn’t have before. The rest of the ordinance was pretty wordy in places. We kind of cleaned it up so it’s more understandable.”
“So then you’d say that setback requirements are no different then what they were before,” questioned Haack, “three years ago?”
Wind Ordinance #22 was created and approved in 2010.
With the tone of the discussion still amicable, Summit Township landowner Kelly Ney initiated a fractious discussion that turned the discourse testy. Ney has been a vocal opponent of wind energy, high voltage transmission line projects and MEC in general.
“So, if a substation facility is built beyond the 1,200′ setback limit, then this doesn’t apply. If the nearest occupied dwelling owner agrees to allow a substation within1200′, then this doesn’t apply either,” Ney observed.
“You’ve been to the wind farm substation site and 1,200′ isn’t really enough. Is it Dan?” Ney asked of supervisor Dan Friedrichsen.
“You’ve got to make them stay 1,200 feet away because here’s what happens. Don’t give them an inch,” Ney angrily warned. “You’ve got to learn that somewhere along the line. Do not give them an inch!”
“If they’ve already got something lined up and it isn’t quite to specifications, I don’t know. MEC seems so worried about a building they are going to put up. It should be 1,200′ feet. Don’t let then go against the rules,” Ney contended.
The County Attorney said, “Can I clarify something and correct me, Adam, if I’m wrong. If a landowner would not consent to less than a 1,200′ setback, the way the ordinance is proposed is not that it’s automatically not going to happen. It could still happen. This is when the Board would need to make a decision about buffering requirements and other conditions they would reasonably impose consistent with the ordinance’s application.
“So, if someone says; they’re at 900 feet. And the landowner says no way, the Board could still potentially approve the permit.”
Ney argued, “We just don’t want any grey areas. If it’s 1,200′, it’s 1,200′. Why would we even say this is only 900′ let’s go put a substation in. We call that a grey area, 1,200′ is 1,200′. No means, no!” Ney argued.
“The only thing I can say to that is if they come in for a construction permit, we are going to be looking at a fight,” said DeBoom.
“Why would they want to build within 1,200 feet?” Ney questioned. “If the landowner agrees, then that’s fine.”
MEC’s Jablonski explained, “Sometimes, it’s not as easy to keep substations 1,200′ away due to land issues or a willing landowner who wants to sell. There are a lot of different siting requirements.”
“Okay, I want to address the willing landowner’s comment,” Ney continued. “Us unwilling landowners shouldn’t have to look at them. When you’ve got a neighbor who wants to put up a windmill, they should be able to do this and to do that. Why do people that want the windmills have the rights and those people that don’t want to have to look at them don’t have the rights?” Ney argued.
Rural Sheldon resident Chris Nuckols sharply countered, “Are you going to take it up by paying someone not to put a turbine on their property? It’s an economic issue for some.”
Ney argued, “I live just two miles west of Primghar. If they put up a windmill between me and my beautiful view of Primghar, then are they going to compensate me for what they have done to my property and what I consider to be diminishing my property value?”
“So, you want to use the value that they are being denied on their property to maintain something that you want,” Nuckols retorted.
“I see that you’ve been through this before,” Ney remarked.
“Are there any other comments?” asked DeBoom. “What we’re doing today is taking all your comments and concerns and giving them to Steve Hallgren who couldn’t be with us today. We will be looking at all these comments and make sure we do address them.”
Groendyke then wanted assurance that a notice of any pending meeting to discuss this would be published in area newspapers.