Windbourne Energy will expand its proposed Marion County wind farm south of US-50 if the county commission approves a recommendation made Thursday by the county planning commission.
The expansion would venture into land Governor Sam Brownback declared off limits to wind energy development in 2011, reserving a vast expanse of tallgrass prairie for future tourism development. Brownback’s “Tallgrass Heartland” reserve includes Marion County east of US-77 and south of US-50 from Florence to Peabody.
The governor’s moratorium is voluntary, and Rex Savage of Windbourne Energy encouraged planning commissioners to approve development in the area.
Savage said the expanded area marked off by Brownback’s plan isn’t “pristine tallgrass prairie” like the untouched expanses further east into the Flint Hills.
“This is where I live,” Savage said. “To call it ‘pristine tallgrass prairie,’ I’m sorry, it doesn’t meet the definition.”
Savage described various developments done to and on the area over the years.
“Has it never been drilled, never been quarried, never had anything manmade built across it?” Savage asked. “You can’t find a single section in that area that doesn’t have oil wells drilled on it. Half the sections still host production. Not quite half of them have had railroads across them or currently have them. The whole area is cut by section roads.”
Savage also cited biologists who he said have inspected the area and say the area isn’t true tallgrass prairie.
Bob Maxwell of Marion was at the meeting to argue against expansion.
“To me this particular application should be dead in the water, because they have that much land mass in the Flint Hills area,” Maxwell said, adding that “Windborne Energy proposes to encroach into the Tallgrass Heartland area by about 2,500 acres.”
Maxwell then addressed Savage directly.
“You’ve encroached on it with your layout on it, and something’s got to give,” Maxwell said. “This board needs to review that and find out.”
“Their (Brownback’s) layout encroached on my land, without my permission, or any of these other landowners’ permission,” Savage replied. “They have no ownership. The people who made that agreement to set the land aside own how many acres of this land?”
Several people, including Savage, spoke about the extensive evaluation the planning commission did when the overlay area allowing wind farms was first established. Planning and zoning consultant David Yearout said the county’s original plan should take precedence over the voluntary set-aside.
“To me it’s an issue that I believe Marion County regulations are in a superior position from the standpoint they were established first,” Yearout said. “There’s been no request or directive or demand from the state level down to the county to modify that territory. The state’s got nothing involved with what’s going on there.”
Savage said the expansion is based on new data about wind flow that has caused Windbourne to reconfigure a proposed layout to achieve optimal generating capacity. The size of the turbines has increased, the number of them has decreased from 112 to 84, but the spacing needed to accommodate them is greater.
“With better modeling and better wind data the developers are discovering there is more downstream wake effect than they originally anticipated,” Savage said. “They’re better off to get those turbines spread out and running at optimal efficiency than they are if they pack them in close together.”
Savage told commissioners that the wind farm has to be operational by Dec. 31, 2015, so this conditional use permit application should be the last one.
“If we’re able to utilize this the way we want to utilize it we won’t be back again,” Savage said. “That would be my intention.”
Questions about the business aspects of the wind farm raised in prior meetings came to the fore again, but Yearout put them in context for the planning commission prior to their vote.
“All these discussions about costs of operation, liability of investors, has no bearing at all on a land use decision,” Yearout said. “It’s a pure question of whether or not, in the opinion of this board, it makes sense to allow the expansion of that land use activity into this area.”
The commissioners voted to approve a conditional use permit for the wind farm expansion. The county commission will consider the proposal at its Nov. 10 meeting.
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