FAYETTEVILLE – A proposed wind farm project west of Springdale cleared its first official hurdle Friday after the Washington County judge filed an order allowing the project site to be annexed into a nearby town.
Dragonfly Industries International, the owner and potential developer of the unincorporated 300-acre plot, hopes to join Elm Springs, a town of fewer than 2,000 people neighboring Springdale and Tontitown. County Judge Marilyn Edwards’ approval is the first step in that process; a 30-day grace period for appealing her decision to circuit court starts today, then the question would go before the Elm Springs City Council.
The company hopes to build dozens of turbines for the state’s first wind farm and supply several megawatts of power to the area. Its proposal has stoked intense opposition from neighbors and Elm Springs residents who fear it could affect safety and property values.
Edwards’ role in the process wasn’t to decide whether the project is a good one, but to make sure the landowners followed the rules set by state law in their annexation bid, county attorney Steve Zega said.
“We are not talking this morning – in this proceeding, at least – about the merits or lack of merits,” Zega said during the county judge’s hearing Monday. “None of that matters this morning.”
Dragonfly first approached Elm Springs, which borders the land on its eastern side, about the project late last year. The company plans to use an uncommon shrouded or ducted turbine that resembles a jet engine and is smaller than the turbines spinning above much of the country.
“It’s been tested, it’s been proven, and we know exactly what it’s going to do and how it’s going to perform,” Phillip Ridings, the system’s designer, said during a packed town hall meeting in March. He added the system would solve the noise, annoyance and danger of the typical three-bladed design, calling it “the silver bullet for wind energy.”
J.R. Carroll, a Fayetteville lawyer who represented the company at Monday’s hearing, said the annexation would be good for Elm Springs. He didn’t return a message left at his office Friday requesting comment.
“I think everyone would agree every city in Northwest Arkansas is growing,” Carroll said. “If there’s going to be growth by Elm Springs, it has to be west.”
Opponents to the project attended Monday, but made few comments because the meeting was technically focused and they hadn’t known public comment could be given.
Opposition slowly has intensified for months, with neighbors saying the turbines’ lights and sounds will be an annoyance at best and dangerous for their health at worst. They say they’re also concerned property values would decline and local wildlife would be affected.
Dragonfly CEO Jody Davis said at the town hall towers would be at least 1,000 feet from property lines because of such concerns, and the project would go forward with or without annexation.
Jonathon Hamby, a neighbor of the land who has rallied the opposition, said his arguments are falling on deaf ears at Elm Springs’ City Hall.
“Nobody seems to want to be on our side,” he said. “I’m just trying to save my family’s future.”
Hamby and others spoke at a Tontitown City Council meeting earlier this month hoping to bring the city into the mix.
“We asked them to do anything they could to get involved,” Hamby said, adding the town’s officials didn’t take any stance at the time. “We’re looking at all of our options.”
The Dragonfly scenario could invoke Arkansas Act 1198 of 2001: If two towns become adjacent to or come within 1,000 feet of each other through annexation, either the annexed land must be zoned for uses that are “compatible” with the land surrounding it, or both cities have to agree on its zoning.
In this case, Tontitown and Elm Springs would become adjacent if the land is annexed. The area around the proposed site is rural, meaning it largely has agricultural and residential zoning. The site is agricultural, Elm Springs Mayor Harold Douthit said. A wind farm would require commercial or industrial zoning.
It would be up to both towns’ planning commissions and city councils to decide whether such a use would be compatible, defined as “harmonious to the uses and activities being conducted on the adjoining lands and properties and which does not adversely affect or unreasonably impact any use or enjoyment of the adjoined land.”
Sometimes towns disagree on the zoning, said Ernest Cate, Springdale city attorney. The city has clashed with its neighbors because of the law, including an ongoing case involving Bethel Heights. If one town refuses to bow to the other, the matter can go to court.
“That law is kind of a double-edged sword – we’ve had it used against us and we’ve used it against others,” Cate said. “It’s not uncommon for us to rezone property contingent on Elm Springs or whoever agreeing to it.”
The law is new enough that some aspects of it aren’t clear, such as the penalty for going against another city’s wishes and whether the landowner seeking a zoning change can appeal the neighboring city’s decision, said Tom Kieklak, Elm Springs city attorney.
The landowner might be able to get around the law by splitting the land and asking to rezone the portion of it outside the 1,000-foot buffer zone set by the law, Cate and Kieklak said. Or the land use might be found to be compatible.
Messages left Friday with Tontitown’s mayor and the chairman of its planning commission requesting comment weren’t returned. Planning commissioner Susan Sedberry said earlier this month she was nominated to be the panel’s researcher into the wind farm.
“My goal is to identify the facts of the situation, such as what do you have to do to get approval of a wind farm,” Sedberry wrote by email June 5. She didn’t return a request for comment Friday afternoon. “I don’t believe anyone is against wind energy; however, it appears there were a variety of unanswered questions from the Elm Springs meeting that left many people apprehensive.”
However the law comes into play, it would only do so if Elm Springs first agrees to annex the Dragonfly land.
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