The debate over whether to amend Fayette County’s setback ordinance for wind turbines will now take place another day, due to a rarely-seen occurrence this week at a public hearing on the matter.
Both supporters and opponents of a proposed wind farm in Fayette County packed the city council chambers at Connersville City Hall, in addition to the entire hallway outside council chambers and the sidewalk lining the front of City Hall Monday night, in anticipation of the public hearing scheduled to be held by the Fayette County Area Plan Commission on a proposed amendment to the setback distance for wind turbines within the county.
The very size of that crowd, however, prompted the APC to vote to table the hearing until a later date.
The hearing was to have been over a petition by the group Wind Project Concerned Citizens to amend the county’s setback distances for wind turbines from non-participating landowners, with the petition being in response to the proposed Whitewater Wind Farm project, headed by NextEra Energy Resources of Juno Beach, Fla.
That project would see the installation of 43 wind turbines in Fayette County – specifically Posey and Fairview townships – as part of the project spanning three counties. The project, if it comes to fruition, would bring an estimated $20 million in payments to landowners leasing property for the installation of wind turbines over the 30 year life of the Whitewater Wind Farm, in addition to about $2 million in economic development payments to Fayette County over the first six years of a 10-year tax abatement the county approved for NextEra earlier this year.
The WPCC, however, has expressed concerns over the county’s current zoning ordinance on setback distances for wind turbines – 1,000 feet – and feels a greater distance is needed, in order for those residents who are not participating in the project to be safeguarded against physical and environmental concerns, such as shadow flicker and noise, they have concerning the wind turbines.
NextEra Energy Resources, as part of their previous agreements with the county, has stated it would implement a 1,400-foot setback for wind turbines from nonparticipating landowners, but the WPCC wants to see a greater distance – 2,640 feet, along with noise level amendments – according to the petition the group submitted last month to county commissioners.
Supporters of the wind farm project, adorned with green ribbons to signify green energy, and opponents of the project – clad in white shirts with red blinking buttons to symbolize the red blinking lights atop wind turbines – began lining up outside Connersville City Hall almost 45 minutes before the meeting began, in anticipation of the meeting.
Once inside, the crowd filled council chambers and the entire hallway outside the chambers, with several firefighters with the Connersville Fire Department on hand to ensure fire code was not violated by the crowd size. Several more people – approximately 30 – lined the sidewalk outside City Hall, unable to come in because of the fire code.
APC Director Bill MacDaniel began the hearing by setting down ground rules for the length of presentation time by both the WPCC and its counsel, attorney Stephen Snyder, and those in opposition to the amendment represented by attorney Mary Solada, who also represents NextEra Energy Resources.
MacDaniel then continued by reading the petition from the WPCC for the amendment to the setback ordinance, along with reading what the county’s current ordinance states, but before presentations from either side in the debate could begin, some residents in attendance interrupted MacDaniel and questioned whether the hearing should take place.
Those questions were raised given the unusual circumstances created by the size of the crowd and those outside on the sidewalk, and several in the hallway outside council chambers, unable to see or hear what was occurring in the meeting.
“We can’t see or hear anything out here,” one unidentified resident yelled from outside the council chambers. David Spencer, a Fayette
County resident, requested that MacDaniel and the APC postpone the meeting until another venue could be found that could accommodate the large crowd and allow them to all hear what occurred in the meeting.
“There’s people lined up outside and they’re complaining that they can’t hear,” Spencer said. “I can only be so loud,” MacDaniel repl ied. “There’s the television out (in the hallway).”
“No, they’re outside on the sidewalk, outside the building,” Spencer continued.
MacDaniel went on to state that the reason those people were left outside was due to fire and building codes, and that unfortunately the city had not set up anything outside for those residents to see what was taking place in the proceedings inside.
“You might want to consider maybe postponing this in a larger venue,” Spencer said.
When told by MacDaniel that the meeting would continue taking place, Spencer went on to question whether the APC was not allowing those residents attending the meeting – specifically those in the hallway and on the sidewalk – to participate in a public hearing.
MacDaniel said that wasn’t the case and then left it to the members of the APC to decide whether to table the hearing or not.
“You may want to consider that,” Spencer said. “There’s a lot of people complaining that they don’t even have access to even being in the building.”
It didn’t take long for one APC member, Gabe Nobbe, to make a motion to table the hearing to a different date and bigger venue, which brought cheers and applause from crowd predominantly consisting of opponents to the wind farm project.
That motion was seconded by APC member Carl Hylton, followed by brief discussion among the APC.
One APC member who initially was not in favor of tabling the hearing was Fayette County Commissioner Leota King.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” King said, learning that the meeting was being broadcast live on Connersville TV3. “If they can find a location where there’s a television set, someplace in the area …”
That comment drew some boos from the crowd.
“This is a public meeting and you’re saying the public’s not welcome?” another unidentified audience member asked King. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m not saying that at all,” she replied.
Nobbe then explained his motion, more in detail, to table the hearing.
“I respectfully disagree,” Nobbe said. “We need to have a venue where people can at least hear (the meeting). They may have access to a TV but you don’t have that outside. I respectfully disagree. At least have a venue where everyone can participate and hear what’s going on, regardless of how our opinions fall out. I think everybody has the right to hear that.”
CFD Fire Chief Troy Tipton then informed the APC that the meeting was coming very close to violating building and fire code.
“We’re pushing the fire code,” he told MacDaniel.
Following that, the APC took a roll call vote and voted unanimously to table the hearing until a later date and a larger venue could be found.
Both sides in the debate felt the decision by the APC was the appropriate one, given the circumstances Monday night.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Fayette County resident Larry Keller, who has served as spokesperson for the group of landowners in Posey and Fairview townships which is seeking the Whitewater Wind Farm.
That sentiment was echoed by Snyder, on behalf of the WPCC.
“I think it was appropriate,” he said. “All the people that are here are entitled to hear and understand what’s going on, instead of standing out in the street. People are beginning to understand what the issues are, and when they understand they become concerned.”
Spencer said he raised the question to the APC of postponing the meeting to a different date and venue simply because it was obvious something needed to be done.
“They only had the one TV out in the hallway, outside the council chambers,” Spencer said. “If the local leaders truly are interested in transparency and hearing the public’s input, there’s no other alternative than to allow them to participate in public meetings.”
No new date has yet to be set for the public hearing on the setback amendment, with the APC to look at procuring either the Robert E. Wise Center for the Performing Arts at Connersville High School, or the auditorium at Connersville Middle School, for the venue.
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