LINCOLN – A nearly yearlong effort to update wind regulations in Lancaster County ended Tuesday when county leaders approved regulations that wind-energy supporters say will discourage projects in the county.
County commissioners Roma Amundson, Deb Schorr and Larry Hudkins approved the regulations, while commissioners Bill Avery and Todd Wiltgen voted against them.
The 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.
Plans by Oregon-based Volkswind USA to build more than 50 wind turbines in southern Lancaster and northern Gage counties prompted reconsideration of the county’s existing wind regulations.
Before the final vote Tuesday, Avery had attempted to amend the proposed regulations to set a noise limit of 45 decibels during the day and night, but three other commissioners rejected that amendment.
Earlier, Avery had asked Jeffrey Wagner, director of Volkswind, whether the company would still consider building a wind farm in the county were the County Board to set a noise limit of 45 decibels during the day and night.
“At the limit of 45 decibels, it still maintains the feasibility for developing a commercial project,” Wagner said. “Any lower I’m not so sure.”
Avery then asked Wagner whether Volkswind would end its plans to build a wind farm in the county if the County Board approved sounds limits of 40 decibels in the day and 37 at night.
“Essentially, yes,” Wagner said.
The noise limits that county officials approved Tuesday are significantly tougher than limits proposed by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission, which had recommended limits of 50 decibels during the day and 42 at night.
Acreage owners in southern Lancaster County had called for the more restrictive noise limits.
“We are relieved that our county commissioners voted for sensible sound limits,” said Cindy Chapman, spokeswoman for the grassroots group Stop Hallam Wind. “It’s been a long year trying to get safe zoning developed. It’s nice to have it completed.”
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 where 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. Volkswind had said it planned to build 436-foot tall turbines.
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.
Curtis Schwaninger, who farms near Hallam, said wind turbines would reduce overall property values in the county, despite assurances Volkswind’s project would generate $700,000 in property tax revenue for the county.
“The value will drop, and the county will lose more money than it would gain by having a wind farm in the area,” he said.
John Atkeison, chief organizer for EnergyLinc, a nonprofit group involved in community education on global warming, said the property tax revenue generated by the project eventually would generate millions for the county that could be used to repair and replace aging roads and bridges.
“That ain’t chump change,” he said.
He urged county commissioners to not be swayed by unsubstantiated claims about the detrimental health impacts of wind turbines and to work to accommodate alternative energy projects in the county.
“It is in the public interest to move concretely and rapidly to clean, renewable power, away from coal-fired power,” he said. “I would just urge you to encourage that move that everybody knows needs to be made.”
Wagner said southern Lancaster County offers sufficient transmission lines and many supportive landowners, features that appeal to Volkswind.
“We are disappointed,” he said in a statement. “We came to Nebraska to invest in its clean-energy future. There’s a tremendous opportunity to inject clean power near the Sheldon Station.”