Towering turbines that sprouted from the ground in Northern Indiana were heralded by some as a green energy cash crop that paid leases to landowners and, by extension, property taxes to local governments.
But as industrial wind energy tries to blow into other parts of the state, it’s running into resistance from communities that fear those turbines will overrun the landscape.
Private developers are in an aggressive push to double the number of Indiana’s wind farms. But they must contend with neighbors, lawsuits and the fickle support of elected officials who once welcomed them – but are now changing their minds.
Fears of noise, adverse health effects and worries that home values would plummet as the giant turbines go up are driving the concerns of opponents.
Residents who live in cozy homes in rural Rush County say their unobstructed views of bucolic farmland would be permanently marred by a proposed development of 65 wind turbines. The bladed turbines 600 feet into the sky, about three times higher than the tallest building in the county, the courthouse.
“Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘I want to build my house next to a wind farm?’” said Hank Campbell, an avid foe of the project.
In recent months, Campbell and other wind-farm opponents have convinced commissioners in Rush County to back off a decade-old agreement that opened the door to such developments.
And, in late May, a state court judge upheld local zoning limits that keep the turbines from encroaching within a half-mile of a neighbor’s property.
The ruling came over the vehement objections of APEX Clean Energy, which said such limits would essentially kill its wind farm development. The company has until late June to appeal the ruling, but it has yet to announce what it will do.
A similar fight is unfolding in neighboring Fayette County, where residents have hauled county commissioners and a different developer into court to stop a wind farm from being planted there.
Opposition is also mounting in rural Henry County, east of Indianapolis, where three wind-farm developers propose up to 300 turbines.
In April, a spokesman for one of the Henry County developers, Brett Kerr of Texas-based Calpine Corp., told the Anderson Herald-Bulletin that such opposition isn’t unusual.
“It’s the NIMBY [not in my backyard],” he said. “People want cheap power but don’t want the facilities close to where they live.”
A wind-farm aversion is driving a handful of other rural counties – including some that already have turbines – to put moratoriums on future development as local debate unfolds.
“They’re losing favor all over the state,” said Campbell, who’s now working with like-minded opposition in other communities.
When wind farms were first planted in Indiana in 2008 – in prairie-flat, sparsely populated rural counties in the northern part of the state – the turbines were heralded as an economic boon to landowners and county coffers.
Supported by federal tax incentives designed to move the nation away from the polluting fossil fuels of coal and oil, the wind farms were promoted as a green source of energy in the heartland of America.
Property owners make an average of $5,000 a year per turbine from wind farm leases, which in turn generate more property taxes for cash-strapped schools and communities.
There are now 1,035 turbines spread across a dozen farms, covering 10s of thousands of acres in the northern half of the state.
Together they generate 1,893 megawatts of power – producing more than three average-size coal plants – making Indiana 12th among the states in wind generation capacity.
Sean Brady, Midwest director of the non-profit advocacy group Wind on the Wire, said their number could double in the next decade, given the dozen proposals for new wind farms in the works.
Brady said he expects opposition to the wind farms “will be worked through.”
Ben Kenney, of the state Office of Energy Development, said the state has far more potential for wind development, given its infrastructure of power transmission lines and its proximity to big cities with energy needs.
“We’re the Crossroads of America, and that includes being the crossroads of the nation’s electric grid,” he said.
Still, Kenney said the state won’t push for wind-energy projects where they’re not welcome.
“Each community has different opinions on what the right type of wind development is for them. We believe decisions are best made at the local level, so that the local communities can decide what’s appropriate from them,” he said.
Getting to those decisions isn’t always easy.
Initially, wind turbines were welcomed in Rush County, a mostly farming community of about 15,000 people. A decade ago, the population and tax base were on the decline, when county commissioners passed an ordinance inviting wind developers to look at the county.
Farmers such as Verlin Custer, who stood to benefit from leasing his land for the turbines, spoke in favor of the project in early hearings. Supporters encouraged the county to offer incentives to lure in the developers.
“From an economic standpoint, I feel like it’s a no-brainer, as far as the county’s concerned,” he said.
Custer still feels that way.
But opponents don’t. They’ve spent the past 18 months fighting the wind farm – even losing some friends along the way. Meanwhile, the county now faces the threat of a $700,000 lawsuit from the developer, for having backed out of its original agreement.
“It’s just split the county and tore it in half,” said Campbell, an auto dealer who until last week had a flashing “No Wind Farms” sign in front of his Main Street business.
Rushville resident Arlene Jessup said she’s tried to stay neutral in a fight that is dividing families and longtime friends.
At the crowded Corner Restaurant in downtown Rushville earlier this week, the retired Jessup said she’s learned not to bring up the topic at breakfast.
“There are three things you don’t talk about in here,” she said. “And that’s windmills, religion and politics.”
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