CLEAR LAKE – A proposed wind farm around the Lake Cochrane Recreation Area in eastern Deuel County proved to be a controversial affair Thursday night at the Deuel County Board of Adjustment meeting.
With more than 150 people in attendance at the 4-H Service Center at the Deuel County Fairgrounds at the northern edge of Clear Lake, many lake residents, farmers and citizens expressed vehement opposition to an operation – known as the Bitter Wind Project – overseen by Renewable Energy Systems, which was represented by developer Jeff Jackson and permit director Sean Flannery at Thursday’s meeting. The farm would consist of 12 wind turbines that would individually generate 3.45 megawatts of power and be more than 400 feet in height. The 12 turbines would go along with 31 turbines the Minnesota county of Yellow Medicine directly east of Lake Cochrane, which is located in eastern Deuel County.
Among the concerns cited were the views that may be compromised by the project, the noise that would be generated by the turbines, and the lack of advanced public notice for construction. Developers hope to break ground on by Nov. 1.
With plans calling for the closest turbine to be placed slightly less than 1.5 miles from the lake, many of the lake’s 208 residents said they would see their views compromised in an area highly regarded for its wildlife and scenery.
“Lake Cochrane is a real jewel in the middle of the prairie. I don’t want it to be a lake in the middle of a wind farm,” Lake Cochrane resident Jerry Durfee said.
The wind turbines would be subject to a 1,000-foot setback by a Deuel County ordinance adopted in 2004. Since that ordinance was adopted, lake residents maintained wind turbines have grown larger and setback requirements have not been updated to reflect as such. Jackson said that the operation would adhere to 1,200-foot setbacks as stated in the application.
“It’s our goal to be more than 1,200 feet. Currently these turbines are more than 1,200 feet. But we limited it to 1,200 in our application so there was some flexibility there if information changed,” Jackson said.
In addition to the views that may be compromised, noise levels were also a big concern to opponents of the proposed wind farm. According to Flannery, the application calls for the windmills to operate at a level of 40 decibels – or about 20 decibels lower than a normal conversation between two people – to the nearest residence on the north side of the lake.
However, residents expressed concern over what may amount to a constant noise at an otherwise serene location, especially if the noise is reflected off a lake echo or another environmental factor came into play.
But perhaps the biggest concern expressed by lake and surrounding area residents was the quick nature in which the wind farm development was put on the agenda for possible approval.
While developers hope to break ground by Nov. 1 in order to receive the full value of a production tax credit from the federal government, citizens expressed alarm at the quick turnaround between first public notice of the project – which did not appear until Aug. 31 –— and Thursday’s meeting. Board of Adjustment members said they first received word of the project around that time.
“The urgency of this being done is what has gotten to us the most,” former Lake Cochrane Improvement Association president and project opponent Jim Ekholm said.
Another opponent added, “Nobody wants their life changed. For a company to come in and say, ‘We’re going to do all of this,’ and completely throw this at us at the last minute as we rush to figure out what’s going on, we don’t even know. It’s just not fair to everybody.”
Jackson acknowledged concerns about the less than ideal timing, maintaining the production tax credit deadline speeded up the process on his and RES’s end.
“To get the full value of that tax credit, we have to start construction in 2016 and we have to complete construction by 2020,” he said, later adding, “There is some time to still have conversations about this. But the timing of the tax credit does make things challenging for us.”
While Thursday’s meeting was the first time many attendees had the chance to hear about the proposed project, Jackson said previous meetings were held in May and August with participating land owners and government officials in Canby, Minn. – about 11 miles east of Lake Cochrane.
Not everyone who attended Thursday’s meeting was against the proposed wind project. Janel Tol, who lives on a farm with her husband, Paul, maintained it is hypocritical for lake residence owners to object to a development that is not happening on their property, drawing a comparison to the development holding ponds located away from the lake to prevent flooding years ago.
“Our neighbor has (holding ponds) 1,000 feet from his house. He didn’t get to choose whether or not your guys’ holding ponds got put on his land,” Tol said. “It was a law. When there was a statute, it was decided. That’s the way sometimes it works and how the world goes around.”
The Tols have already agreed with RES on an easement to allow wind farm development on their property.
After more than 2 1/2 hours of discussion, at approximately 11:30 p.m. Jackson suggested tabling his proposal until the Oct. 17 meeting, just over two weeks from the proposed Nov. 1 construction beginning. After board members agreed, Jackson said the tabling would give him and his colleagues time to discuss the project with opponents.
“None of the information is going to change, except that it’s going to allow us an opportunity to work with the concerned folks and share more information,” Jackson said.
If the project is approved, Jackson estimates Deuel County would receive $525,000 annually in tax revenue generated by the project, with $182,000 going to the county and $78,000 going to the townships. Jackson also estimated that $260,000 would go toward the Deuel and Deubrook school districts, but, as Ekholm pointed out, recent South Dakota education legislation may see those school districts receive less than that total as that type of tax revenue previously enjoyed by those districts will now see greater distribution to school districts across the state.
Despite his willingness to table the proposal, Jackson felt RES’s application followed the procedures correctly and stands up to scrutiny of the project’s opponents.
“If the bar that the board sets is that everyone is happy, that’s an unachievable bar for us,” Jackson said. “I feel like we did a very thorough job on the application. I do think the project has been developed very responsibly.”