A former Tipton County commissioner shared her experiences with wind farms this week, as one of the final steps in bringing a proposed wind farm to fruition in Fayette County is expected to take place in the near future.
Those experiences detailed by Jane Harper, who served as Tipton County commissioner from 2009 to 2012, range from being a one-time supporter who voted for wind farms to now an advocate against such projects.
One of those wind farm projects is slated for Fayette County, as NextEra Energy Resources is expected to approach the Fayette County Area Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals in the near future seeking the special exception zoning the company would need to erect approximately 43 wind turbines in Posey and Fairview townships.
Those turbines are part of a three-county, 70-plus wind farm project known as the Whitewater Wind Farm, which would see between $120 to $140 million invested by NextEra Energy Resources into Fayette County’s portion of the project, along with property owners in the county leasing their land for the farm to receive approximately $20 million in payments over the 30-year life of the project.
The county would also receive about $2 million total in economic development payments for the first six years of a 10-year tax abatement the county approved for NextEra earlier this year.
Harper, in talking with the News-Examiner Wednesday, said much of what she has heard of the process in Fayette County is quite similar to what she dealt with as a commissioner in Tipton County, when the energy company E.ON Climate and Renewables approached commissioners with a proposal to build a portion of the Wildcat Wind Farm in Tipton County.
“What happened with our county was, of course, we knew this wind development was probably imminent because of what happened in Benton County. They were the front-runners,” Harper said. “We kind of understood it might be coming … In 2008, Tipton County developed a wind ordinance and it was based on, basically, what Benton County had done. I think, really, Benton County kind of developed the template for wind ordinances in Indiana. They had put this setback of 1,000 feet, and of course, since no one really knew anything about it, everybody kind of adopted that standard 1,000 foot setback.”
Fayette County’s setback distance is 1,000 feet, with NextEra stipulating with its agreements with the county that it would have a 1,400 feet setback for non-participating landowners from wind turbines.
Much as several Fayette County officials did late last year, when the process for the Whitewater Wind Farm began picking up steam, Harper said her and her colleagues took trips to other wind farms to see for themselves what they consisted of.
“We did our due diligence,” she said. “We visited Benton County, we visited White County. Everything was positive, but we just didn’t understand how a higher population density, with the turbines, how that would affect the people because in those counties, it wasn’t present. So everything we heard was very, very positive.”
With that in mind, and with no seemingly great opposition to the project, Harper said commissioners decided to green light the project.
“I was personally not for covering the county with wind turbines, like Benton County did. I just didn’t believe everyone in the county would aesthetically want that. A lot of people in our county just like the rural landscape,” Harper said. “I was not opposed to perhaps trying it in one section of the county. The landowners seemed to want it and nobody really knew anything about it, as far as being opposed to it, so we went through the whole process with the public hearings and there was a little resistance, but not really too much. So we went through with it.”
It’s a decision Harper said she now regrets, and she has spent time recently expressing that experience to several other Indiana counties – such as Stark, Howard and Huntington counties – who are considering wind farm projects.
“What people didn’t know or understand was in Benton County, the 1,000-foot setback is probably fine because their population density is only about 25 people per square mile. They’re low. That was really not factored in for counties that higher population densities, because you wouldn’t have known that because you haven’t experienced it yet,” she said.
“It wasn’t then, until they went up, the people that were close to them that were not participating landowners, the effects they were having were presented to us. Then I realized what we had done to those people that were not participating landowners.”
Some of those effects, according to Harper, were noise and shadow flicker from the wind turbines on landowners which did have an effect on their lives.
“I heard it all,” she said. “I heard all the spin, that all these claims about property values are bogus, that property values might decline within the first year but then after that, people get used to it. The shadow flicker, oh, at 1,000 feet, that’s not true. The noise, no, if they’re too noisy, we’ll fix it. I heard all that bunk. It just plain isn’t true.
“I have been in those people’s homes. I have been out there and it is a reality,” Harper continued. “I’ve been in their living rooms and I’ve seen it. It’s like, on some of them, back in the ’70s in a disco, with a strobe light. That is their reality. Those are the things, when the wind companies say all this stuff, it sounds really good, but I know what the reality is, because I know what these people are putting up with.
“The noise, sometimes you can’t hear anything. It’s like a whoosh,” she added. “It depends on what the weather conditions are. Sometimes you’ll drive up next to a tower on a country road and you won’t hear a thing. But other times, it will sound like dogs are barking, or gears are grinding, or it’s an eerie, creepy sound. It just depends on what the weather conditions are. Sometimes, it sounds like if you’re outside and you hear a jet fly over. That’s what it sounds like, except when a jet goes over, it goes over and it goes away. But this stays. It’s constant. It’s that loud roar above you that’s just constant. Those kinds of things will grate on your nerves, and that’s what these people are experiencing. That’s why the setback, to me, of 1,000 feet, is not enough.”
A group of citizens within Fayette County in fact, named the Wind Project Concerned Citizens, are seeking for the county’s 1,000-feet setback to be increased to 2,640 feet – a half-mile – because of such physical concerns.
“A half-mile would probably mitigate the shadow flicker,” Harper said. “As far as the aesthetic view, it won’t, because another 1,000 feet for a tower 500 feet tall, you’re going to see it.”
Not only were there physical effects on residents in Tipton County, Harper stated, there were detrimental social effects on its community as well.
“Knowing now, what it has done to our community, that’s why I’m now so against (wind projects). I have seen how it has torn our community apart, because it pitted neighbors against neighbors, families against families, in this fight over ‘look what you did to me.’ I just felt like there is no amount of money that was worth doing that to personal relationships,” she said. “The reminders of these towers being up for 30 years, that will always be present. In communities, if you have some hot-button issue, it goes away with time, it fades … because people kind of forget. But with (turbines), they are a constant reminder of ‘look what you did to me.’ That’s what I feel so badly about.”
Harper also disputes many other aspects energy companies pitch at county governments statewide, such as job creation the wind projects will spur and how they have no effect on property values.
“The other thing that really bothered me about the companies is they say, oh, we’re going to bring 200 construction jobs and 10 permanent jobs, and all this,” Harper said. “Well, guess what? There’s nobody in our county that was qualified to do these 10 permanent jobs, and with the 200 construction jobs, they said it would be 200 local jobs. Now, as a commissioner, if I’m trying to get the best deal for the county, I’m thinking when they say local jobs, it must mean from our county.
“After the project got going, I contacted the representative … and I asked for a list of all the people from Tipton County who got a construction job, who were able to be gainfully employed by this project,” she continued. “There wasn’t really anybody that got a job on this project that was from Tipton County.”
Local employees by the company’s definition, according to Harper, were from a 50- to 60-mile radius of the project, with many of the temporary construction jobs going to a band of traveling workers who contracted with the E.ON energy company.
“They’re not really lying, but they’re not telling the whole story, either,” she said.
When it comes to property values, the effects a wind farm might have are common sense, Harper commented.
“(Energy companies) will tell you all these things with their studies (on property values). The common, reasonable person that has seen these go up – and these things are enormous – the pool of people that would be interested in your house, if one of these is 1,000 feet from your home, is less than if there wasn’t one sitting there,” she said. “That is just a common sense, reasonable conclusion. The number of people that might be interested in buying your home without a turbine is more than there would be with one, because once they read about the noise, the shadow flicker, all that stuff, they’re not going to be interested in buying your house. So the property values are going to be diminished. They do have an effect on people’s well-being.”
That’s what Harper is trying to stress, over the past few months, to other counties when it comes to wind farms – there is an impact, and it is not all as positive as portrayed.
“I have no dog in (Fayette County’s) fight,” she said. “There is no reason to tell you anything but the truth. I’m just trying to help people not be in the same situation that people in (Tipton County) are in.”
Harper wishes someone had done it with her while she served as Tipton County commissioner.
“I certainly wish someone, if they had experienced some things like I had, would have reached out to me,” she said. “I am perfectly willing to tell other counties, beware. I’m telling you what, you have no idea what you’re in for if this goes through … you’re going to have people suffering, and people suffering unduly.
“I feel bad I was part of causing that problem for them,” Harper concluded.