The Lincoln/Lancaster County Planning Commission on Wednesday rejected controversial provisions of proposed rules to govern wind turbines in the county.
The regulations address noise, setbacks from homes and property, lighting, shadow flicker and the eventual decommissioning of towers.
Industry representatives said the original proposals on shadow flicker and noise were far too restrictive and would discriminate against farmers and landowners who want to participate in wind projects.
A majority of commission members agreed to drop a 30-minute-a-day limit to shadow flicker on homes with a 8-1 vote, and the commission voted to amend the original noise limits on a 5-4 vote.
The Planning Commission then voted 5-4 to recommend the amended regulations to the Lancaster County Board, which may hold another public hearing next month before giving a final thumbs up or down.
The new proposed noise limit the Planning Commission adopted is 50 decibels during the day and 42 at night measured from dwellings.
Property owners who oppose development of wind farms near their homes left the 6½ hour meeting disappointed. They had wanted the noise limits to remain at the recommended 40 decibels in the day and 37 at night, and they asked commissioners to increase setbacks from buildings.
Cindy Chapman stood before a microphone facing the Planning Commission early in the meeting with about 130 people at her back.
“I am representing residents of rural Lancaster County who are concerned about the effect of wind turbines on our health and safety and our property values,” she said.
Behind her, the vast majority of the crowd stood.
“They’re all with me,” she said.
Chapman was one of about 20 people who spoke at the public hearing on proposed rules that would govern the construction of wind turbines in Lancaster County and, if adopted, would have been the most restrictive in the state. Wind energy supporters said the original rules could have severely restricted development of turbines in the county.
None of the speakers fully supported the proposed regulations.
John Hansen, president of Nebraska Farmers Union, panned the original proposed regulations and said they could set a precedent in the state. He called them “unrealistic, unjustified and unworkable.” People who flee the bustle of cities for rural acreages must be willing and ready to tolerate the sounds that come with farming and ranching, he said.
If the lower sound rules were applied to other agricultural activities, farmers could not plant, harvest, dry, auger or transport crops, he said.
Larry Oltman asked the commission to relax the proposed regulations. He farms in both Lancaster and Gage counties and wants turbines on his family farm, which has been in existence more than 100 years. It would provide him with a steady income to pay taxes and help in years when not enough rain falls on his dry-land crops, he said.
Lisa Sullivan, director of development for the Juno Beach, Florida-based Nextera Energy, told the commission that even though Nextera, the largest renewable wind energy company in the United States, is not developing a project in Lancaster County, the company feared the decision here could influence other counties in the state. Nextera’s standard setback from residences is 1,400 feet.
The Lincoln/Lancaster County Health Department, which helped develop the sound regulations, says the limits are based on the most recent research and aimed at protecting public health.
Wind turbine noise is annoying, and the louder it is, the more annoying it is, said Scott Holmes, manager of the environmental health division of the Lincoln/Lancaster County Health Department. Its unique oscillating whoosh and thump is tough to get used to and the annoyance can cause physiological reactions, including loss of sleep, increased heart rates and blood pressure, he said.
Studies show that only about 10 percent of people would report being annoyed by the limits the Health Department proposed of 40 decibels during the day and 37 decibels at night, based on reviews of the most recent research, he said.
Holmes said the noise turbines make cannot be compared to other sounds, like a stream or the hum of a refrigerator, which also are around 40 decibels.
“It’s more annoying to people than other sounds at the same levels,” he said.
It’s unique. Multiple turbines, even if in sync, combine to make a modulating pulsing swoosh and thump, plus a whirring sound, a hum from the transformer substation and infrasound below human hearing.
State Sen. Ken Harr, who lives on an acreage near Branched Oak Lake, asked commissioners to consider the economic and tax benefits of turbines, as well as the health effects of global warming.
“You are setting energy policy,” Harr said.
The original proposed regulations resulted from the input of a Wind Energy Text Amendment Working Group of 12 people plus another eight from Gage County, plus input from the Health Department. The group held six meetings that were open to the public.
The review of Lancaster County’s turbine regulations was spurred by a proposal by Oregon-based Volkswind USA to build more than 50 wind turbines on 1,300 acres of land, involving about 60 landowners in Lancaster and Gage counties. The turbines would be 436 feet tall, measured to the tip of a blade at its highest point.
Volkswind paused its applications for the Hallam project in October. At the time, the company said it wanted time to do more noise studies and outreach to residents. It also gave the county time to hold its workgroup meetings.
Volkswind’s proposal riled rural residents like Chapman and her husband, Larry, who fear wind turbines will crash the value of their Hallam area acreage, and also that the constant thump and swish of turbine blades will make living there unbearable. They started the group Stop Hallam Wind, which represents about 130 people from the area.
Chapman said she supports the proposed sound restrictions but would like to see setbacks increased to a half mile. Currently, the proposed setback is 1,000 feet minimum from the exterior wall of houses, with the added caveat that for the homes of people who don’t have an agreement with the developer, the turbine must be set back three times its height when measured from the tip of the blades at their highest point. The setback from small acreage lots of up to 10 acres would be measured from property lines.
Cindy Chapman, who served on the working group, says she and her neighbors support wind energy development, just not in the second most populous county in the state. She said wind farms should be built in areas where there are fewer people to disturb.
To get a sense of how a 436-foot turbine would appear at that setback, Cindy Chapman recommended standing at M street and looking up at the Capitol building.
The noise restrictions had been the most controversial part of the proposed regulations.
Joe Wood, project manager for Volkswind USA, said the original limits would make developing wind energy in Lancaster County difficult, if not impossible.
Wind energy is a booming business, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy. The United States added 4,854 megawatts of new capacity in 2014, 8 percent growth over 2013, and about $8.3 billion in new investments. It brought the country’s total capacity to nearly 66 gigawatts, enough to power 17.5 million homes.
Wind power has made up 33 percent of all power capacity additions in the United States since 2007. The industry supports more than 73,000 jobs nationally.
Volkswind USA previously has said its project could cost up to $190 million and provide about $700,000 in taxes benefits to local governments. Building the wind farm would provide 200 temporary construction jobs and a handful of full-time jobs. But before it could begin construction, the company has to find a buyer for the electricity.
“Generally a project can’t get the financing it needs until that power is contracted,” Wood said during a recent phone interview.
Part of the attraction of the Hallam area is access to the transmission lines running to NPPD’s Sheldon Station. Transmission lines are expensive and time consuming to get built, requiring long swaths of right of way to be acquired from landowners.
Two years of monitoring have shown plenty of wind to support a turbine farm, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission says it’s an area where development would have minimal impact on wildlife.
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