Center pivots on fat black tires roll in slow circles, spewing water onto thirsty crops in Southeast Nebraska.
Amid rolling seas of corn, soybeans and alfalfa rise islands of oak, maple and Osage orange around farm houses and acreages. Cicadas bellow their song under blue skies, competing to be heard over the rustling of leaves, the wind and the occasional rumble of a GPS-guided tractor.
The peaceful scene belies an underlying tension that has grown over the future of the skyline, the wind and the sounds that dominate rural Lancaster County.
Depending on which side of a wind turbine one stands, the rhythmic swoosh of its blades sounds like emissions-free clean energy, a pay day or a paradise-despoiling annoyance.
Proposed regulations being considered in Lancaster County deal with noise and health issues from wind turbines, as well as setback requirements from homes and property, lighting and decommissioning of towers. The Planning Commission is considering the regulations, and the Lancaster County Board will have the final say and could host a public hearing next month.
The review of county regulations was sparked by a proposal from Portland, Oregon-based Volkswind to build 50 436-feet-tall turbines on 11,000 acres of land – 7,000 acres in southern Lancaster County and 4,000 in northern Gage County.
The most controversial part of the suggested regulations is the limits they would place on sound. Supporters of wind energy say the proposed rules are far too restrictive, would severely hamper the ability to develop wind energy and impinge on farmers’ right to earn a living from their land.
But many neighbors of the proposed wind farm near Hallam dread living with the constant swoosh-thump sounds made by the blades and say the turbines could drive down property prices. They point to a growing body of anecdotal evidence from people who live near turbines in states including Iowa and Minnesota who complain of sleepless nights, headaches, elevated blood pressure, etc.
The blades whoosh as they cut the air. Then, when they pass the tower, the sound bounces off of it, causing the thump.
“It has an oddball pitch to it. It’s really annoying,” said Randy Saathoff, who lives five miles southwest of Diller, next to the 75-megawatt Steele Flats Wind farm in Gage and Jefferson counties.
Saathoff said the turbines dominate the landscape of all but one side of his brick ranch home. His family has to close all of the blinds in the house at night because the red blinking lights on the blades, which are required by the Federal Aviation Administration, flash through the windows.
“Wind turbine noise is not like traffic noise,” Scott Holmes, who manages the environmental health division of the Lincoln/Lancaster County Health Department. “It’s not like airport noise. It’s not like rail noise. It is its own unique kind of noise.”
And it’s annoying, he said during a recent briefing on the proposed regulations given to the Planning Commission.
It’s annoying enough to cause physiological reactions, including increased heart rates and blood pressure, he said. Some people also complain about feelings of pressure in their ears near turbines.
Holmes said the proposed 40-decibel limit during the day and 37-decibel limit at night are based on reviews of the most recent research on the health effects and annoyance of turbines. A babbling brook or the hum of a refrigerator reaches about 40 decibels – a level by which studies show only about 10 percent of people would report being annoyed.
The proposed regulations would allow levels to be 3 decibels higher than ambient sound for areas where the surroundings are a bit noisy, like near highways.
“We’re trying to establish a health-based standard where people spend most of their time,” Holmes said.
But Ken Winston of the Nebraska Sierra Club said no peer-reviewed studies have found that the sounds wind turbines make hurt people’s health.
“The Nebraska Sierra Club supports reasonable standards for siting wind development that consider impacts on human health, wildlife, wildlife habitat and native prairies,” he said in an email. “However, in this case the proposed regulations for sound are not based on any scientifically verifiable study, but rather appear to be an arbitrary number which would very likely prevent any wind development in Lancaster County.
“If this noise standard is adopted, other businesses should expect challenges to their operations based on these noise levels.”
A study done by Health Canada, the branch of the Canadian government responsible for public health, found no connection between wind turbine noise and an increase in illness or inability to sleep.
But it did find the louder the noise, the more likely people were to be annoyed. And it found that those who benefit from the turbines, like payments or community improvements, are less likely to be annoyed.
Joe Wood, project engineer for wind energy company Volkswind, called the noise regulations proposed for Lancaster County overly restrictive and said they would make it extremely difficult to develop a wind farm in the area.
“It comes down to whether a company is willing to take the risk of violation. The way they have the rules proposed now it applies to not just non-participating landowners but also to participating landowners,” he said.
That’s fine with Cindy Chapman, who owns an acreage with her husband, Larry, near where Volkswind wants to build its wind farm. Chapman and her neighbors have created the group Stop Hallam Wind and campaigned hard to put the kibosh on the project.
Chapman said she supports wind energy, just not in Lancaster County, the second most populous county in Nebraska and home to numerous acreages. Wind farms are better placed in counties with fewer people to annoy, she said.
But the area is attractive to Volkswind for several reasons, Wood said. It’s close to the transmission lines running to NPPD’s Sheldon Station, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has deemed the area a space where development would have little impact on wildlife and two years of meteorological testing has shown plenty of wind.
“We feel like there is enough support from local landowners and other organizations that we don’t really see a reason to be looking elsewhere,” Wood said. “Every wind project deals with opposition, and I don’t think this one is any different in that respect.”
The Lancaster County proposal grew out of a series of meetings held over three months with a working group made up of a dozen people of varying viewpoints, including industry representatives, environmentalists and landowners. Another eight people from Gage County, which has been discussing beefing up its turbine regulations, also attended the public meetings, which typically drew crowds of 30 to 40 people.
The process of creating the proposal got high marks from energy advocacy group Bold Nebraska, said its director, Jane Kleeb.
The organization is not taking a stance on the sound restrictions but supports the setback of three times the height of the structure with a 1,000-foot minimum from the homes of people who have not signed agreements with developers. The setback for homes owned by people who have signed agreements is less restrictive.
“We see what Lancaster has done as a model and example of what other counties should be doing,” Kleeb said.
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