More than 150 people gathered with coffee in hand before 8 a.m. Wednesday at Dickinson City Hall prepared for a long discussion about the proposed 87-turbine Brady Wind Energy Center in southern Stark County.
That’s exactly what they got as morning turned to night and people came and went during the day-long Public Service Commission hearing about the controversial project, which has split the opinions of neighbors and landowners in southern Stark County and beyond.
Public Service Commission Chair Julie Fedorchak assured the crowded room early in the hearing that the PSC’s “role is not to pick winners and losers.”
For the bulk of the day, however, attorneys for both Brady Wind LLC, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, and the grassroots Concerned Citizens of Stark County, questioned witnesses as to how the wind farm would be exactly that for the area.
Fedorchak and Commissioners Randy Christmann and Brian Kalk listened to evidence provided by four witnesses for Brady Wind and six witnesses from the Concerned Citizens of Stark County, as well as several public commenters, who finished off the long day by speaking well into the night.
Kalk said it was the longest hearing he has had in his eight years as a public service commissioner and even laughed when the battery on his microphone started dying nearly 12 hours into the meeting.
“Maybe I talk too much judge,” Kalk said to the administrative law Judge Patrick Ward, who oversaw the proceedings.
“I can’t wait to go home and tell my wife I outlast an Energizer battery,” joked Ward.
On a more somber note, the meeting ran so long that Christmann had to leave the hearing early in the evening to be with his ailing father. He said he would review the transcribed portions of the hearing that he missed.
The three commissioners may take up to two months to make the final decision on the proposed 150-megawatt wind farm, which was first proposed in late 2015.
The Brady Wind proposal came months after Stark County denied NextEra’s request for the Dickinson Wind farm, which was similar to the Brady Wind project but was proposed to be built between Gladstone and Richardton.
The Brady Wind project was approved by Stark County’s planning and zoning board and its county commission on Dec. 22 in split decisions.
Both sides had the opportunity to say their piece Wednesday, an opportunity that the Concerned Citizens of Stark County alleged wasn’t provided during the county commission meeting to approve the wind farm. The group filed an injunction in January, claiming open-meeting violations occurred that day. However, it was dismissed March 24 by Southwest District Judge Dann Greenwood.
A clear divide was seen in the room as those opposed to the wind farm wore large red stickers stating “Fix our ordinances” – a reference to Stark County’s ordinance that says a wind turbine must be set back 2,000 feet from an occupied dwelling – and those who support the project and wore white stickers stating “I (heart) wind energy”.
The Concerned Citizens of Stark County want the county’s 2,000-foot setback ordinance wording changed from an “occupied residence” to 2,000 feet “from the edge of a property line.”
Jason Utton, NextEra Energy Resources’ executive director of business development, was the day’s first witness. His examination and cross-examination lasted almost three hours, as he outlined reasons why the PSC should approve the wind farm and defended it against questioning by the Concerned Citizens of Stark County’s attorney.
Utton said after the rejection of the Dickinson Wind project, community outreach was important to NextEra. He pointed to the benefits the local construction and hospitality industries would see from the wind farm’s construction, as well as a potential $8.5 million tax revenue the New England School District would receive in the first 30 years of the project’s lifespan.
Jobs would also come to the community, he said, with six to 10 permanent employees, and around 200 workers during the construction phase of the project.
“We hear all types of concerns on wind energy,” he said. “You’ll hear about shadows or sounds, so we don’t hesitate to bring our experts out to the field for them to dispel rumors.”
As witnesses, NextEra presented Kimberly Wells, its environmental services project manager; Christopher Ollson, a senior environmental health specialist with Ollson Environmental Health Management; and hris Farmer, a principal biologist of environmental and permitting services with DNV-GL.
Utton said NextEra was approached by Basin Electric Power Cooperative to provide the energy.
The power produced by the Brady Wind farm – as well as the proposed second phase of the project, which would be in Hettinger County but has yet to go before that county’s zoning board – would be put on the power grid and used to power such places as the northwest corner of North Dakota.
John Wanner, a Stark County resident opposed to the wind farm, said his concern is that Stark County and even North Dakota doesn’t need the energy.
“We don’t need it,” he said. “One of my biggest problems is that we are shipping most of this out of state.”
No representatives from Basin Electric spoke about the power needs, but NextEra’s attorneys said the company would reach out to electric cooperative and likely file late exhibits to prove the cooperative needs the power.
The Concerned Citizens of Stark County, represented by Minneapolis-based attorney Matt Collins, area landowners and citizens group organizers Tom Reichert, Farren Richard and Autumn Richard, New England area farmer Jon Wert, Dickinson city engineer Craig Kubas and Gladstone Mayor Kurt Martin.
Autumn Richard said she doesn’t oppose wind energy, but wants the county’s ordinances set back further so wind turbines aren’t a disturbance to her family and children.
If the proposed wind farm is approved with the ordinances as they are now, Autumn Richard said she and her husband have considered moving.
“That’s a sad statement,” she said. “We’re just not sure if we want to be within that many wind turbines around our home.”
Richard said there would be approximately nine turbines within a mile or less of her property.
“I doubt there is anyone in the room who would say they are against green energy,” Reichert said. “We are against Brady Wind as it is proposed.”
Elvin Kaufman, a retired Lefor area farmer, has been vocal in his support for the wind farm and the benefits of the possible two turbines that would be on his property. But he wants everyone to keep the community in mind as the PSC makes its decision.
“I strongly suggest that whatever the ruling is after today, that we stick to together and stay united,” Kaufman said.