The annual meeting of township boards rarely draw an extra citizen, let alone a gathering of 46 of its residents and voters.
But on Tuesday night, 46 of Franklin Township’s 148 registered voters gathered to consider whether the township should enact regulations concerning development of wind turbine that generate electricity.
The township, covering 36 square miles, surrounds the Butler County seat of David City on its north, east and south sides. As a result of the meeting, the township will place limitations on developers hoping to build wind turbine farms. Whether those limits are challenged in court awaits similar proposals coming to five other townships in eastern Butler County.
Unlike decisions made at the village and city level, the township’s registered voters, not the elected board, are asked to decide policy issues. In this case, the vote was 3-1 in favor of the regulations.
Conducting the meeting was Township Board Chairman Lane Sabata, along with Clerk Roger Svoboda and Treasurer R.J. Hein.
The township residents voted 33-13 to ban high voltage power lines, needed to carry electricity to a larger grid, under the township’s roads.
Residents also voted 33-11 to require 1,640-foot setbacks between the turbines and the nearest township road or nearby property whose owner is not taking part in the development. The regulation also placed limits on the noise created by turbines during overnight hours.
The regulations were researched and drawn up by the Bohemian Alps Wind Watchers, an area group of concerned citizens that organized after wind developers’ plans became known last spring. At the township level the regulations were formally proposed by a resident of the township.
The regulations are proposed in five other townships with upcoming meetings: Savannah, Sept. 15 in Bellwood; Oak Creek, Sept. 16 in Brainard; Skull Creek, Sept. 15 in Bellwood; Linwood, Sept. 17 in Abie, and Richardson, Sept. 16 in Dwight. The BAWW group took the township approach after learning that Butler County, with no countywide zoning in place, could not put any restrictions on the wind farm developments.
Wind energy developers have been seeking easements for turbine sites in Butler County for more than a year.
In Franklin Township, Bluestem Energy is looking to install two wind turbines that would add power to the David City electric grid. Bluestem is developing the project under allowances made by the Nebraska Public Power District for a percentage of electricity to come from alternative or “green” sources.
NextEra Energy resources is looking to build complex of up to 112 wind turbines across northern and eastern Butler County and western Saunders County. The company has acquired about a dozen easements on property so far.
Zoning in townships?
Before the discussion of regulations began, some of the township residents asked if the township could even be asked to consider the proposals.
David City attorney Jim Egr, who serves as the township’s attorney, said the township board could have declined the proposals, but he noted that some of the township’s residents had put in a lot of work preparing the proposals, so the voters should be able to hear and consider them.
Egr cited the 2013 case of Butler County Dairy vs. Butler County, in which the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the county could not be forced to overrule Read Township’s refusal to allow a manure pipeline under the township’s road.
However, in that case, Egr said, the Supreme Court did not make a ruling based on the township’s authority to enact zoning rules.
The court “did not address what would be zoning and not zoning for a township from a zoning standpoint,” Egr said. “On the other hand, the district court and supreme court agreed there was authority to regulate this item (manure pipelines).”
Attorneys representing the opposing viewpoints made their arguments about the underground power lines.
Omaha attorney David Levy, representing Bluestem Energy Solutions, said state statutes did not give townships authority to enact zoning, and that the placement of power lines was allowed under the state’s highways.
Attorney Greg Barton of Lincoln, representing BAWW, said that the roads in question were not the state highways but instead, township roads.
Bluestem representative Adam Herink said that the company had proposed its two turbines about a mile east of David City, only to learn that a 24-acre housing subdivision was being planned within a half a mile of the turbine sites. The company has adjusted, seeking sites farther from David City.
Township resident Jeff Struck said that the township has already “given quite a bit to society” with Butler County Landfill in its midst, along with a methane pipeline to David City. Wind turbines would adversely affect the property values in the area, he said.
A woman speaking against the regulations cautioned against enacting rules for structures that some people do not like. Would rules regarding grain elevators and farmers’ irrigation pivots be next, she asked.
Another opponent asked whether the lack of countywide zoning in Butler County was a factor.
Egr, the township’s attorney, repeated: “I am of the opinion that the township doesn’t have the authority to pass zoning regulations.”
Bruce Bostelman, a member of BAWW who lives near Loma, said that the regulations of underground power lines were strictly a safety issue. The regulation would not prevent public utilities from placing the lines underground. The turbines’ power lines, however, would present a danger to anyone working in a township road ditch.
“There is a real danger and this regulation goes a long way. Your vote for these regulations ensures a safer township,” Bostelman said.
In regard to setbacks of the turbine towers, BAWW member John Stanner, who lives east of Brainard, said his research had indicated that the wind turbines, reaching more than 400 feet to the top of the blades, can throw ice chunks as far as 1,700 feet. The blades also have failed, throwing blade fragments, he said. The township roads and the property of neighbors who are not associated with the wind farms need to be protected, he said.
If properties are included in the wind farm by choice of the owner, the setbacks would not apply.
“This is about safety, not about not having wind turbines,” Stanner said.
Having wind turbines within 1,640 feet of a township road places vehicles on the road at risk of turbine failures, Stanner said, and anyone driving on the road would be at risk for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. For this reason, he said the Nebraska Department of Roads would not permit turbines within range of a state highway.
Bluestem’s Herink said Stanner was making arguments based on the wind turbines of 15 years ago. He said the industry has advanced its designs and also has improved its ice detection abilities, so that in ice storms, the towers are shut down. During ice storms, he added, the traffic on roadways also is lessened.
Jan Bostelman, who described her 35 years of experience as a engineer in the power industry, said the safety regulations need to be based on the worst case scenarios of turbine failures.
Opponents of the regulations asked for the source of the noise levels described in the overnight noise level limits. The specifications were consistent with research done by the World Health Organization.
Here are summaries of the regulations passed.
A ban on the placement of a high voltage (greather than 480 volts) power line under the town property, including town roads, right-of-ways, and ditches within the township.
Each turbine will be no less than 1,640 feet fromany property line of an owner not associated with the project. Each turbine will be no less than 1,640 feet from any town road.
The regulations also limit the amount of noise a turbine can generate between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., and lower limits for the period between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m..
The turbines also must meet federal aviation requirements, including lighting and interference issues. Strobe lighting should be avoided if alternative lighting is allowed.
The distance between tower support bases must be spaced a minimum of five rotor diameters distance figured by the size of the largest rotor.
Each tower must have a decommissioning plan to outline the means, procedures and cost of removing the turbines and all related supporting infrastructure and a bond or equivalent enforceable resource to guarantee removal and restoration within a year of decommissioning.