Tradewinds Energy moved one step closer Thursday to getting approval for three meteorological towers in Lindahl Township, which will provide data for a final design of a controversial wind farm in the area.
The Williams County Planning and Zoning Commission approved a conditional use permit for three towers.
There was a line out the door of the Broadway Commons in Williston, where the meeting was held.
At one point, the commissioners asked for a show of hands of those who were for and those who were against the project, and there were about an equal show of hands for both sides.
Commissioner Tate Cymbaluk said the board had received an unspecified number of letters.
“Some are for and some are against,” Cymbaluk said.
He said a lot of what he read was “emotion.”
The board’s approval only acts as a recommendation to the county commission, which must approve the conditional use permits before the company can erect the towers.
The company downplayed the decision.
“It’s one step in the process,” said Brice Barton, senior development manager for Tradewind Energy.
The towers will be used to get what Joe Arb, director of development for Tradewinds, called “quality data.”
The company will use the data from the towers to create a full design and to support financing for the actual wind farm itself, which has been met with opposition from some of the residents in the area, who have raised concerns on everything from its impact on the view to health and safety.
Since October, the company has been holding public informational sessions on the project and received a lot of feedback from residents in the area.
They have since scaled back some of the planned turbines.
In the presentation Thursday, the company showed how the turbines will be no closer to Tioga than four miles. With a computer generated photo looking from an spot near Neset Consulting on ND 40, Barton showed the turbines would not be very visible from town.
As a result of the change, the company withdrew requests for permits for two of the five planned meteorological towers, including the one tower planned in Tioga Township. All three remaining planned towers now sit inside Lindahl Township.
The wind farm project was initiated by landowners in the area, who signed a collective lease. The opposition came from landowners in the area who had elected not to sign the lease.
To accommodate their concerns, the company has increased the setbacks for the turbines near those homes from 1,400 feet, which is the minimum allowed by state and county regulations, to 3,500 feet.
“Tradewinds has been very responsible with how we build projects. Our setbacks are a little bit more conservative than others,” said Arb.
The proposed wind farm has also been scaled back from 50,000 acres to 13,000 acres.
“If you’re not a participant in the project, we’re saying we’ll have three times the required setback. For most, we’re many times that,” Arb said.
Arb went on to say that every home within the project area is now owned by a participating landowner.
The towers are 197 feet tall. Barton told the commission the towers are usually in place until the project is built, and in some cases, they remain after. But he said most likely these towers will be up for a year or two.
“They’re definitely temporary,” he said.
In January, Tradewinds provided a presentation on the wind farm project to the Tioga City Commission in order to fulfill a request from the county’s planning and zoning commission, which asked for more public input before deciding on the permits for the meteorological towers.
Due to opposition from residents, who showed up in force for the Tioga meeting, the city commission recommended to the county that the permits be denied.
Tioga Commissioner Heather Weflen said last week she is not happy with the county’s Thursday decision.
“I wish to express my regret that the Williams County planning and zoning voted for the MET towers and disregarded the City of Tioga’s letter of opposition,” Weflen said.
Even if county commissioners approve the permits for the meteorological towers, Tradewinds must go through the entire process again to get permits for the wind farm project.
Before the county planning and zoning commission voted Thursday, Cymbaluk asked the Tradewinds representatives if they knew of any change in the Tioga Commission’s position.
Barton said he wasn’t aware of any changes, but he said the city’s decision was based on a judgement of the project and not the meteorological towers. He asked the county board to only consider what the permits are requesting.
“Unfortunately, the discussion got away from our MET tower permits and got into our project, and it’s hard for us to explain a project we haven’t fully designed,” Barton said.
Commission Chris Brostuen made a motion to approve the permits. He said he was torn over the issue. Opposition to coal and nuclear has made wind one of the few viable options for needed power, he said.
“This region is hungry for power, like it or not,” Brostuen said.
He stressed his motion is not an expression of support for the project itself, but for the valuable data the testing towers may provide toward expanding the region’s energy portfolio.
Commissioner Kim Steffan seconded the motion. Only Commissioner Dan Kalil voted against the recommendation to approve the permits.
While the decision disappointed opponents such as Valleri Beasley, it only approves three towers and not the wind farm.
“I’m not especially happy, but this is one step in the process,” Beasley said.
Beasley lives east of Tioga. With the concessions the company has made, the turbines will probably not be visible from her property, if the project ultimately gets built. The changes don’t alleviate her concerns, though.
“They conveniently took them out of the area with the biggest opposition,” she said.
Her husband, Todd, said he has seen too many inconsistencies in the information the company has provided to the public to believe the concessions are permanent.
“It seems to us they change their word depending on what board they’re in front of,” he said.
Barton said they have no plans to revoke the concessions they’ve made so far with respect to the project. He echoed that whatever their final plans for the project, the county’s decision Thursday did not approve the wind farm.
“We have to come back,” he said.
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