The Rock Barn in Henrietta was standing room only for the first public meeting of Clay County Against Wind Farms (CCAWF) held Tuesday night, November 3.
The only wind farm currently located in Clay County is the 119-turbine Shannon project, which is scheduled to begin operation in January of 2016. However, inquiries by wind energy agents in the Bluegrove and Petrolia areas has led opponents – many of which were against the original Shannon project – to begin campaigning early to make sure no more wind farms are built in the county. The Tuesday night meeting was one of the first steps, along with a website – www.CCAWF.org – stating their reasons for opposing wind energy.
Officially, the county hasn’t been approached by any wind energy company with any requests regarding future wind farms.
“Before we change the county, we need to think about it very hard,” said Dr. Paul Burns, one of the featured speakers at the event.
Burns, a retired physician, has been working hard to spread the word about the drawbacks of industrial-sized wind energy projects in Texas. Burns became concerned with wind farms when companies were considering installing them in Brown County, which his family has deep ties with. Though Brown County has so far remained free of wind farms, neighboring counties have allowed them, and one now abuts the Brown County line.
According to Burns, counties benefit very little from wind energy projects, which he feels destroys the natural beauty of the countryside, causes health problems, devalues property of small and mid-size land holders nearby, and the money promised by wind energy companies for counties and school districts rarely materializes in the amounts promised.
To that last point he claimed there were “no schools where SAT scores went up” because a wind farm was built. He said any extra money such a project might bring in is often reclaimed by the state through the “Robin Hood” laws, where money is distributed from wealthy districts to districts struggling financially.
He said the same holds true about claims of financial benefits going to county hospitals.
“Obamacare has changed everything about the medical practice,” he said. Burns claims what hospitals need most of all to “stay afloat” isn’t money from wind farms, but patients, and wind farms will be a deterrent to both people and doctors who are looking for a rural setting to “get away from it all.”
He was also critical of Facebook’s purchase of the energy from the Shannon project, owned by Alterra Energy of Canada, for their new data center currently being built north of Fort Worth.
“It’s a joke that Facebook cares about Clay County,” he said. “No one cares about Clay County but you.”
He also warned about the leases offered by wind energy companies, saying they give only about 5%-10% of profits to landowners while most private property rights are signed away. Meanwhile, the value of neighboring properties often fall up to 50% because few are willing to buy rural property next to an industrial installation like a wind farm.
“(Wind energy agents) sell the deal several times,” he warned. “You have no idea who is coming and going on your land.”
He said one of the worst consequences of wind farms is how it “pits neighbor against neighbor” by setting landowners who believe they will benefit with a lease from wind energy companies against landowners who don’t want wind turbines on their property or are located nearby and will have to look at the 400-foot tall towers during the day and blinking lights at night. He said the contracts often require a “non-disclosure” agreement from those signing them, creating an atmosphere of suspicion.
“Be sure you’re willing to hurt your neighbor,” he said, before agreeing to a wind farm.
The other featured speaker of the night was Vann Stanford, a former owner of a multi-million dollar manufacturing facility in Brownwood and current realtor in Brown County. He said he has experienced first-hand how wind farms have decreased property values.
“We don’t have any dog in this hunt,” he said regarding possible future wind farms in Clay County, “so we’re just giving you what we think.”
He said most realtors have lost deals because of wind farms, since potential buyers who might be interested in land in the area want it because of the rural setting, which he said wind farms “ruin.” He said even recreational users such as hunters who just want to use the land for weekend getaways or vacations are not interested because the nearby wind turbines are just too intrusive.
Stanford said he now requires buyers to sign a release saying they will not sue if a wind farm is built nearby because he is afraid of potential lawsuits.
He said there are usually only a few winners – the landowners who have wind turbines located on their property – while meanwhile the rest of the people suffer. He said wind farms will eventually cause property values and the tax base to go down in the long term.
During the question session audience members brought up a wide range of concerns, everything from how wind farms affect eminent domain to debris flying off turbine blades to possible strategies to stop wind farms because of endangered species.
One of the biggest concerns expressed by members of the audience regarded tax abatements. The Shannon wind farm project was touted in part because it will provide to the county and school districts approximately $8 million over the next 10 years through a tax abatement agreement made between the county and the wind energy company. Many with CCAWF, including John Greer, whose family owns land and has long ties in Clay County, believe the county has no business encouraging wind energy companies by agreeing to tax abatements for a business that already is subsidized “from top to bottom,” be it federal Production Tax Credits (PTC), state subsidies for transmission lines or local government entities offering tax breaks.
On the other hand, Greer and other opponents believe making sure the county doesn’t agree to tax abatements is a good way to dissuade wind energy companies from building projects in the county.
“If you can stop the tax abatement they will probably go away,” Stanford replied.
“Elected officials will do what they feel like the majority wants to do,” said Burns, who encouraged residents to show up at commissioners meetings and let the commissioners know where they stand. He stressed that most commissioners were good people and urged people to always be courteous when stating their case.
Yet there are no guarantees denying tax abatements will stop a wind farm project. The only sure way, admitted Burns and Stanford, is to persuade landowners considering signing a lease that it would be bad in the long term for both their neighbors and the county.
On the other hand, many opponents felt they did not get a fair hearing on the Shannon project, and one audience member pointed out how a petition signed by 50% of nearby landowners was seemingly ignored by the commissioners back in 2010 when elected officials voted unanimously to approve the tax abatement.
Another audience member related how he had enjoyed hunting turkeys around Sweetwater, but after a wind farm was erected the noise caused by the turbines prevented him from calling turkeys, as well as ruining the beautiful setting he had once enjoyed.
One audience member, Vance Dugger, related how he had been approached regarding a lease to erect turbines on his place and was surprised to find it was County Judge Kenneth Liggett who was negotiating on behalf of the wind energy company. He wondered how that couldn’t be construed as a conflict of interest.
A check with the State Attorney General’s Office and the Texas Association of Counties indicates that a conflict of interest would only arise if an elected official uses his or her office to unduly influence an issue which was officially presented before the governing body. An elected official must also declare his or her involvement in any matter coming before the governing body and then not participate in any vote coming before the governing body he or she serves on. Judge Liggett has stated that he will not vote on any matter coming before the Commissioners’ Court regarding wind energy concerns which he is involved with (see related story about the Commissioners’ Court on this page).
Again, no issues regarding a future wind farm has been officially presented to the Commissioners’ Court.
CCAWF’s Greer said wind farm projects typically need between 8-10 thousand acres of land. He said he has always been a big supporter of private property rights, but urges any landowner considering signing a lease to have turbines erected to give serious thought about how those towering structures – visible from many miles away – will affect their neighbors and their community.
“I would hope it would give you pause,” he said.
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