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County Board shows support for more stringent wind-energy regulations

Lancaster County leaders expressed support Tuesday for more stringent regulations on wind-energy projects over the protests of some who want to see a wind-energy farm built in the county.

While the Lancaster County Board didn’t vote Tuesday, the board drafted the wind-energy amendment to the county’s zoning regulations that it will consider at a future meeting. In doing so, county commissioners explained where they stand on the proposed regulations.

Commissioners debated two main issues Tuesday: noise levels of wind turbines and the distance required between wind turbines and adjoining homes or properties.

They also discussed the impact of the proposed regulations on plans by Oregon-based Volkswind USA to build more than 50 wind turbines in southern Lancaster and northern Gage counties.

“This is a tough decision,” said Commissioner Bill Avery. “I want this project to move forward … But I don’t want it to move forward without any reasonable standards.”

Volkswind officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The board eventually voted 3-2 on a set of proposed wind-energy regulations, which it expects to approve Nov. 10 after the Lancaster County Attorney’s office drafts a resolution. Commissioners Deb Schorr, Larry Hudkins and Roma Amundson approved the regulations, while Commissioners Todd Wiltgen and Avery voted no.

The County Board has the final say on changes to the county’s zoning regulations. Volkswind still must submit a proposal to the county for its wind farm, and the County Board also would get to vote on that proposal.

The drafted regulations establish noise limits of 40 decibels in the day and 37 at night for wind turbines as measured from nearby dwellings, limits that both city and county planning and health staff had recommended.

Those noise limits would be significantly tougher than limits recommended by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission. The Planning Commission had recommended limits of 50 decibels during the day and 42 at night.

Volkswind USA officials and other supporters of the company’s proposed wind farm had asked for the less stringent noise limits, while many acreage owners in southern Lancaster County had called for the more restrictive noise limits.

County commissioners also took a slightly different stance from the Planning Commission on setbacks – distances between wind turbines and nearby homes and properties.

The County Board voted to establish a minimum setback of twice the height of a wind turbine to a nearby dwelling for participating properties, or properties whose owners have signed leases with wind-energy companies to allow use of their land for wind turbine construction. That setback was different from the Planning Commission’s recommendation of a 1,000-foot minimum setback for participating properties.

Depending on a turbine’s height, the County Board’s regulations either could be more or less stringent than the Planning Commission’s. However, Volkswind has said it plans to build 436-foot tall turbines, making the county’s regulations less stringent than the Planning Commission’s recommendation.

As for nonparticipating properties, the County Board established setbacks of twice the height of a turbine as measured from a property line, or three-and-a-half times the height of a turbine as measured from a dwelling – whichever is greater. At a minimum, turbines would have to be 1,000 feet from a nonparticipating dwelling.

By comparison, the Planning Commission had recommended a setback of three times the height of a turbine from a nonparticipating dwelling. That setback would have been measured from the property line for smaller lots of 10 or fewer acres and measured from a dwelling for larger lots of more than 10 acres.

The County Board chose not to differentiate between larger and smaller lots Tuesday.

Avery said he feared the regulations approved Tuesday would prevent Volkswind, or any other wind-energy company, from constructing a profitable wind farm in the county. He said wind energy will be vital to protect the environment from air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“We cannot continue down the path of fossil fuel dependency,” he said.

At a public hearing before the County Board last week, several speakers warned the board that whatever regulations they approve would influence other government officials who are considering wind-energy regulations.

Amundson said she wanted to establish regulations that best fit her county.

“Many of the other counties may not have the density that we have,” she said.

Cindy Chapman, spokeswoman for the grassroots group Stop Hallam Wind, said she was happy to see county officials support more stringent regulations regarding wind-energy development.

“It appears that most of our commissioners had the health and welfare of a majority of the rural residents in mind when they voted today,” she said. “We just hope that the final vote comes soon.”