A muffled groan could be heard from members of the audience as Stark County Commissioner Jay Elkin voted “aye,” the third and deciding vote that approved a conditional-use permit for a wind farm to be erected in southern Stark County.
Both the Stark County Commission and Planning and Zoning Board convened at respective special and regular meetings Tuesday morning at Stark County Courthouse to vote on the Brady Wind Energy Center proposed by Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources.
The bodies were steeply divided on the issue, with the planning and zoning board voting 5-3 to recommend its approval before the county commission voted 3-2 in its decision.
The voting reflected the community surrounding the $250 million, 87-turbine project, which has split into passionate camps that support and oppose the project.
Preceding the votes, the planning and zoning board held a public hearing on the issue, where numerous residents, businesspeople and experts from the county and beyond spoke both for and against the wind farm.
One of the speakers was Mike Schoch, a resident of the Schefield area who lives within the project’s footprint.
He expressed concern about a transmission line that he said was planned to run 1,100 feet from his land. He said his daughter, who was born with a health condition, has a medically-programmed shunt that he fears radiation from the transmission line could tamper with. He also said the radiation had the possibility of causing leukemia, which he said many studies had not ruled out as a possibility.
The wind farm has caused divisions between his family members and neighbors, Schoch said.
“If this project is approved, I will have to relocate, which, in the end, may finalize the separation of my family and community,” he said.
Klayton Oltmanns, a planning and zoning board member, said the board had a challenge sifting the factual information and the emotional. The task before the them, he said, was simply to codify an agreement between NextEra and the landowners.
“We have an applicant that has met or exceeded the requirement that we set out in our zoning,” Oltmanns said. “We have land participants that are willing participants in this project, too. So it’s not an eminent domain project.”
Should the board disapprove of the permit, Oltmanns said he feared it would proceed on the wrong track.
“I think that when you start denying applications based on emotion and findings that don’t meet our guidelines, then you’re really starting to deny property rights,” he said.
Oltmanns added that, with recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations requiring a significant decrease North Dakota’s carbon emissions, the only way to keep its clean coal technology was to supplement it with green energy. If they rejected it now, Oltmanns said the county would have for scramble to it later.
Zoning board member and commissioner Russ Hoff said he had listened to phone calls and read all the letters sent to him about the potential wind farm, and he acknowledged the divide it had set within the community.
“Today we’re not going to make one group happy,” he said. “That’s for sure.”
Hoff said he had neighbors and relatives who were likely going to dislike him, no matter how he voted. It was this community disruption, he said, that was his issue with the wind farm.
“They definitely don’t bring neighbors together,” he said. “It definitely divides neighbors.”
Speaking as a zoning board member, Elkin said he struggled to understand the need for wind energy in Stark County.
He said he knew Basin Electric Power Cooperative – which plans to purchase the energy from the wind turbines – was looking at the project as a means to lower its emissions output for the federal regulations, but he said it was possible that a different presidential administration could herald a change in those rules.
Elkin said the board should make decisions based on the health and safety of its citizens, citing Schoch’s family.
“The need, I don’t believe, is in the here and now. I believe it’s a future need,” he said.
Oltmanns made a motion to approve the application, which board member Sue Larsen seconded. They, along with board members Duane Grundhauser, Larry Messer and Kurt Froelich voted yes, while Hoff, Elkin and board member and Dickinson Mayor Gene Jackson voted no.
With the special county commission meeting held immediately following the board’s recommendation, commissioner Ken Zander expressed his dismay at the prospect of the wind farm.
Zander, who has frequently voiced his opposition to wind energy development in the past, said that NextEra and Basin Electric were “billion-dollar” companies who make promises of how they can “make Stark County better” with the wind farm.
“We have listened to people out in the audience that have said, ‘No, this isn’t going to make things better,’” Zander said.
He added that he had no issue with the EPA requesting that the state boost its wind production to meet federal regulations. But, at the same time, the federal government would never dream of filling national park land with wind towers due to environment issues.
Zander made a motion to deny the conditional-use permit, which failed.
Following his “no” vote with the planning and zoning board, Elkin, who has historically voted along with the board’s recommendations in county commission matters, said he faced a dilemma with the commissioners’ vote. He said he felt obligated to take the board’s vote into consideration, despite his earlier dissent from it.
“Just because I don’t favor or didn’t agree with their decision, doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t possibly listen to the decision of that committee,” he said.
Elkin also referenced the rejection of NextEra’s Dickinson Wind farm in eastern Stark County in May by the commissioners, which was also recommended for approval by the planning and zoning board. He warned it could set a bad precedent if the commissioners went against the board’s decision once more.
“How many of these (planning and zoning board members) are going to (be) willing to serve and continue on serving if we continue to reject their decision?” Elkin asked.
On the same note, Elkin later said that NextEra and the county have to work with vulnerable people, such as the Schochs, in ensuring their safety. He warned NextEra that things might not be easy should they approach the county commission again should they fail to work with the Schochs or others.
Commissioner Duane “Bucky” Wolf said he recognized that the commissioners might be “pitting neighbor against neighbor,” but that the decision was theirs to make.
He seconded Elkin in supporting the planning and zoning board’s decision, saying that a lot of money was given to them to draft a wind energy ordinance in the county’s land code.
Wolf made a motion to approve the conditional-use permit, which commissioner Pete Kuntz seconded. They and Elkin approved the measure, with Hoff and Zander voting no.
“I think wind and whatever is not the whole answer, but it might be part of the equation going down the road,” Wolf said.