A wind farm on the drawing board in western Wisconsin took another step forward Thursday when regulators resolved concerns raised in a court ruling last summer.
The Highland Wind Farm in St. Croix County could move toward construction by the end of this year, the project’s developer said after the Public Service Commission’s vote.
Opponents of the project, however, may seek to go back to court, which they did after the PSC approved the project in 2014.
The wind farm would generate 102 megawatts of electricity and cost about $250 million to build.
Commissioner Phil Montgomery, who has been supportive of the project, expressed frustration that the project has moved at such a snail’s pace.
“Four years ago a company came to the state of Wisconsin to do business, and to create jobs, by producing a product,” he said. “And four years into this we still find this company not having a definitive answer, still not having invested that money and still not having created those jobs.”
The project was first rejected by the PSC in 2013 and then approved in 2014 with special noise restrictions for certain residences near the project.
After a St. Croix County judge overturned the case, he asked the commission to justify the special restrictions it granted for certain residences, and why other residences weren’t eligible for the special noise restrictions.
At their meeting Thursday, PSC commissioners said there wasn’t ample evidence to warrant the special restrictions, so they voted to let the project proceed without them.
In response to the court ruling, the commission also took into account recent studies that examine potential health impacts from wind turbines. That included recent reports by the state’s wind-siting council as well as peer-reviewed studies and articles submitted by both Clean Wisconsin, which supports the project, and the Town of Forest, which has opposed it.
The Town of Forest had wanted the PSC to hold a new round of hearings on the project to take evidence on what types of noise restrictions should be placed on homes near turbines. They cited concerns about health effects from shadow flicker and turbine noise raised by residents near other wind farms in Wisconsin, including the Shirley wind farm built by Emerging Energies in Brown County.
But Ellen Nowak, who chairs the commission, said the peer-reviewed studies and reports reviewed by the commission found no “causal link has been established” between wind turbines and health impacts.
Nowak voted with Montgomery to move the project forward. Commissioner Mike Huebsch abstained, saying he was not on the commission when the project was first considered.
Nowak originally opposed the project but noted that the circuit court decision upheld the PSC permit in many respects.
“I respect the judicial review process and respect the outcome of that process,” she said, adding, “This is not time to re-litigate issues” that were previously decided.
In an interview, Bill Rakocy of Emerging Energies said he was thrilled by the PSC’s vote.
“Every stakeholder from every perspective imaginable has made comments, and we appreciate the fact that there’s that much interest in our project, and it’s exciting to see that the things we have been maintaining for years have once again been proven out,” he said.
Nowak said during the PSC’s meeting that she expected the case will land back in court.
The attorney for the Town of Forest said the town would respond to the PSC action next week.
Rakocy said he hoped that instead of spending money litigating the project, the town and residents would see financial benefits from letting the project move forward.
Financial benefits would come in the form of shared revenue payments for the town and county governments as well as for property owners who live within one-half mile of the spots where turbines will be built, he said.
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