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Antelope County wind energy project still up in the air

NELIGH – North Dakota to Texas is what Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen calls the wind energy “sweet spot.”

Hansen leads the state’s second largest farm organization that consists of about 4,000 farmers and ranchers and has been working on wind energy development since the mid-1990s.

He said the U.S. Department of Energy ranks Nebraska as third in the nation for wind energy development, so it is was only a matter of time before Northeast Nebraska and Antelope County would become a “hot spot.”

Hansen was correct in his assessment Tuesday afternoon as about 300 people crowded into the Neligh American Legion Hall for a public hearing to discuss a proposed wind farm that would be located generally in the northern half of the county and expected to have about 160 wind turbines.

It was probably a coincidence at the hearing, but 22 people spoke in favor and the same number spoke against a conditional-use permit application for Invenergy, which is seeking to build the farm.

The Chicago-based company already has turbines turning in the southern part of the county from other projects. But this new project currently is listed as one of the three biggest ever considered in the state.

The Antelope County supervisors ultimately voted to delay a decision on the conditional-use permit until June 7, in part to have time to consider all the testimony and letters of support and opposition that have been received.

Hansen, who spoke on favor of the wind farm project, said it should not be surprising Antelope County has received so much attention given that it has “world-class wind and transmission.”

“You will continue to get looks,” Hansen said.

Most of those who spoke in favor cited the economic development and green energy opportunities that would be realized. Those opposed repeatedly said the project should be sent back to the county’s planning commission because, among other things, they didn’t view the application as complete. They also raised concerns about such things as decommission of the wind towers.

Mick Baird, vice president of development for Invenergy, said his company began operations seven years ago in the southern part of Antelope County with the Prairie Breeze project.

It has invested more than $500 million in the county and has 18 employees in the Elgin area. Like any business that is doing well, it just wants to expand its operations, Baird said.

Many of the people who spoke in favor said the county can’t afford to let the economic opportunities pass by, especially for what it could mean for schools and roads.

Jim Koenig said Antelope County missed out about a century ago when Oakdale was chosen by the railroad to be a major turnaround location. The roundhouse ended up going to Norfolk.

“Look how that turned out,” he said.

Koenig said that, more recently, Cargill wanted to locate in Antelope County, but residents said no. The company then went a little farther south to Boone County, which is where an ethanol plant also ended up being built, he said.

Greg Ptacek, Neligh’s economic development director, said having a renewable industry is attractive to other companies, especially millennials who work for them.

Ptacek shared with those in attendance that the communities of Kearney and Altoona, Iowa, were the two finalists for a Facebook office that employs about 150 people with $16 million in annual payroll.

In the end, Facebook chose Altoona because it had a wind farm, Ptacek said, and despite the fact it’s much smaller than Kearney.

In the future, more Fortune 500 companies will be looking to locate near green or renewable energy industries, Ptacek said.

But not everyone agrees the economic benefits are worth it.

One woman spoke of caring for a special needs child who is bothered by the noise of the turbines and other results of living near two towers in the southern part of the county.

Pat Meuret of Brunswick said he believes the application should be sent back to the planning commission. If not, the county needs to attach some conditions to it that will protect the property rights of residents, especially those living near the wind farm who didn’t sign up for it.

Meuret also said the county should not have a 2,000 feet setback from a tower to the nearest residence. Instead, the 2,000 feet should be from the tower to the nearest property line, he said.

His wife, Holly Meuret, pointed out that billboards have more stringent requirements than those faced by wind turbines.

Several others who testified later said they agree with the Meurets.

Stacey Mitchell said she doesn’t believe there are enough safeguards in place to protect the county’s residents. “Invenergy will not be the salvation of Antelope County,” she said. “It will be its downfall.

Dean Smith, who lives in the northern part of the county, said he believes Invenergy’s application is inaccurate and incomplete. As a result, it must be sent back to the planning commission, he said.

But Mike Degan of Omaha, an attorney representing Invenergy, said the application is complete.

Contrary to what opponents have said, the application was not rushed through and both the planning commission and zoning administrator carefully considered it, Degan said.

He said the process to look at zoning regulations began about a year ago, and Invenergy has agreed to all the changes put forth since then.

Degan said that if wind turbines were so undesirable, why would Iowa, which has experience with them going back 20 years, be among the national leaders with more than 3,000 turbines spinning.