MOTT – Wind farm hearings seem to have been the norm for landowners in Stark and Hettinger counties for nearly a year. After Friday, however, they’ll likely stop being such a commonality.
The Hettinger County Planning and Zoning Board and the County Commission voted unanimously to approve the conditional-use permit for the second phase of Brady Wind Energy Center north of New England on Friday morning at the Hettinger County Courthouse.
“This is my 10th wind meeting and I’m really tired of this,” said Jon Wert, a landowner who lives east of New England and opposed to the 72-turbine Brady Wind II project.
The planning and zoning board heard passionate pleas from people supporting and opposing the wind farm for about two hours.
“What’s happening to our county, we are getting money for our roads, our schools … and you can’t deny that,” said landowner Nick Lenhardt of New England, who supported the project.
Ultimately, all seven board members voted to recommend approval of the project. The three county commissioners then voted unanimously to approve in a 15-minute special meeting.
The 150-megawatt wind farm will either directly or indirectly affect 100 landowners in three townships. Basin Electric Power Cooperative has a power-purchase agreement in place with NextEra for the energy generated by the turbines.
Brady Wind II is a separate project and a separate power-purchase agreement than the Brady Wind I project in southern Stark County. The state Public Service Commission heard 15 hours of testimony March 30 regarding that project and may not make its final decision to either approve or deny it until late May.
Combined, the two phases of the Brady Wind Energy Center would put 159 turbines generating about 300 megawatts of power in a rural area north of New England and stretching from west of Highway 22 to the Enchanted Highway north of Lefor.
A separate PSC public hearing for Brady Wind II will also have to be scheduled, though NextEra Energy Resources – the Florida-based company that would build the wind farm – has said that if Brady Wind I is denied by the PSC, it may not move forward with Brady Wind II.
Melissa Hochmuth, a NextEra representative, and Christopher Ollson, an environmental health specialist, presented for about 30 minutes before the zoning board opened the floor for discussion, comments and questions from people on both sides of the issue. Though arguments came from both sides, those who spoke in favor of the project slightly outweighed those in opposition.
Many of the same faces seen in the Hettinger County courtroom were at the PSC meeting for the Brady Wind I. The Concerned Citizens of Stark County – which opposes both Brady Wind projects – had members in attendance, along with the group spokesman Tom Reichert, who said there were mistakes made in Stark County, and urged the zoning board and county commissioners not to make a quick decision.
“I would really encourage you gentleman to sit back and think about this for a while,” he said. “Take a couple of weeks. It’s a huge decision.”
However, Hettinger County Commission Chair John Plaggemeyer said he, along with the two other commissioners, and the planning and zoning board members had done their research prior to Friday and were not taking their decisions lightly.
“It’s not like we don’t know what’s going on here,” he said. “We have really educated ourselves. So it’s not a spur-of-the-moment thing in our decision-making here today.”
Almost 20 people were given the opportunity to present their opinions to the zoning board, with some speaking multiple times.
Lea Dorner, who lives northeast of New England, spoke up multiple times. Dorner said her family was approached by NextEra during the early stages to have turbines put on their land. But the family refused to accept them, saying “we just had a bad feeling about it.”
Dorner said she and her family will consider moving if the wind farm is erected near her home.
“My son will not be here if this goes up,” she said. “He will not grow up here.”
Twelve-year-old Wyatt Dorner stood before the zoning board and said that his life will change if the wind farm is erected because he may have to move, and his dream of being in a band with his best friend won’t become a reality.
Wert said he spent six years building a house “with beautiful views” and he will have a wind turbine disrupting that view. Wert also presented the zoning board with a picture he said he took of a golden eagle on his property that will be in close vicinity of the turbines.
“You really need to be aware that they are in the area,” he said.
NextEra said it has done research with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to ensure they are impacting as little of the environment and animals as possible.
Early in their presentation, Hochmuth said there will be 1 acre per turbine that will have permanent impact, which equates to 74 acres for the project area, though the entire project spans across several miles.
Along with asking for the zoning board’s approval of the project, Hochmuth also presented a request to allow NextEra to have a 73-feet ground clearance on the wind turbine blades, even though the clearance requirement for Hettinger County Land Use Regulations is set at 75 feet. The zoning board’s included that request in its motion to approve.
Hochmuth also said that even though Hettinger County only requires a 1,320 feet setback from an occupied residence, NextEra opted to increase Brady Wind II’s voluntarily setback to 2,000 feet so it was comparable to what the Stark County Planning and Zoning Board agreed on with Brady Wind I.
During Hochmuth’s presentation, she also highlighted the positive economic impact Brady Wind II will have on New England and Hettinger County.
NextEra claims there will be $21 million in tax revenue for the county during the first 30 years of the project’s life, with the New England School District receiving $8.8 million and participating landowners receiving more than $24 million in payments during the first 30 years of the project.
Mark Kohler, a resident of rural New England and supporter of the wind farm, said he wants his 100-year-old family farm to be used for more than just agriculture.
“I want our farm to be used to produce electricity as a part of Brady II wind farm,” he said.
“I came here to this meeting today to let you know that I believe my rights as a landowner need to be protected.”
Llewelyn Rustan, a New England-area landowner who admitted he lives nowhere near the project and has no financial stake in it, said he didn’t want the board’s decision to divide his community.
“I have friends on both sides of this issue, and my biggest concern is that goes to a place that doesn’t allow us to be friends,” he said. “I’ve always admired the guys that can sit at a meeting and argue heatedly about an issue and then after the meeting go have a beer together. And I would like to think that we can come out of this. Whatever the decision is, let’s not let it ruin our friendships.”
After the meeting, the same people who were arguing different points, had hands on each other’s shoulders, spoke about work and each other’s families.
Though Wert and Lenhardt were on different sides of the wind farm argument during the meeting, they spoke as friends do afterward.
“Just because we have different ideas doesn’t make us enemies,” Leinhardt said.