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Voters to decide town’s land issue; Plan for wind farm in dispute

ELM SPRINGS – Voters will soon decide whether the proposed site for a wind farm will remain part of the town of Elm Springs.

An election is set for March 1, the same day as the primary elections, on whether to repeal the annexation of about 312 acres on the west end of Elm Springs. The City Council approved the annexation in October, but a petition drive that ended in December put the question on the ballot.

Early voting began Tuesday at six locations in Washington County.

Executives with the Texas-based corporation Dragonfly Industries International have said they hope to use the land for Arkansas’ first wind farm. The project could include dozens of 150-foot turbine towers that would use an unusual shrouded, or covered, wind turbine design. The proposal has sparked opposition from neighbors and town residents.

The land’s owner, an Arkansas company called Elite Energy, successfully petitioned the county and Elm Springs to join the town last year. Dragonfly Chief Executive Officer Jody Davis told residents last year that the project would benefit the town but would go forward with or without the annexation.

The March 1 vote is essentially about whether Elm Springs or Washington County officials and planners will oversee the project’s permitting.

In Elm Springs, the project would go before the planning commission, where there’s some uncertainty about the approval process. Some members of the planning commission, including the chairman, said last month that the land wouldn’t need to be rezoned from residential-agricultural use because the zoning allows utility facilities. Developers dropped a request for rezoning last year while it was considered by the City Council.

Commission members disagreed on whether the turbines would need a large-scale development permit. They agreed the turbines would at least need individual building permits.

If the annexation is repealed and the land goes back to the county, the process could have more steps, said Washington County Planning Director Juliet Richey.

The project would need to get a conditional-use permit from the Planning Board, which looks at construction’s effect on surrounding properties and whose decision can be appealed to the Quorum Court. The conditional-use permit essentially covers the building permit portion, Richey said.

The project would need a large-scale development permit as well, she said.

Critics of the project, including neighbors who live outside the city limits and can’t vote on the annexation issue, have said Dragonfly’s technology is untested and could harm their health or property values.

On social media, at town meetings and in interviews, several opponents during the past year have also questioned the developers’ expertise and backgrounds.

Jonathon Hamby, a neighbor who helped rally the opposition, has said he believes the county’s board and planning staff would be better equipped to ensure a thorough review of the plan’s details and would be less invested in the project’s approval or disapproval.

Elm Springs Mayor Harold Douthit has said the town’s planning commission would be up to the task. Commission Chairman Matt Casey also works as engineering design manager for Fayetteville’s engineering division.

Douthit has said he generally supports the project as a potential source of tax revenue and an overall boost for the city of around 1,700. He also fired back at the project’s opponents, saying those living within city limits make up a small number of the town’s population.

Davis, the Dragonfly chief executive officer, last month sued two project opponents in Washington County Circuit Court for defamation. Jonathon Hamby and his wife, Vivian, who live outside city limits, help run a Facebook page against the project, the lawsuit states.

Davis said the Hambys posted untrue and disparaging comments about him and his company on the page, citing posts that focus on Davis’ past convictions for a hot check violation and embezzlement. Davis has said he paid for his mistakes and has grown past them. Jonathon Hamby in interviews has said he doesn’t believe Davis can be trusted.

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