A restrictive set of wind ordinances up for debate just after Christmas will very likely go to a vote.
Lincoln County Commissioners are pondering the passage of wind turbine rules that would make Dakota Power Community Wind’s 400-megawatt project impossible.
A group of opponents, meanwhile, say the three-quarter mile setbacks passed last month aren’t enough to protect residents’ health and property values.
The commission will vote two days after Christmas, but that’s unlikely to put the question of wind energy to bed.
Both sides said last week they would like to see voters of Lincoln County – including tens of thousands of Sioux Falls residents – decide the matter, and both sides believe they have a good shot at a ballot box win.
The city of Sioux Falls south of 57th Street represents about 60 percent of Lincoln County’s population. Harrisburg and Tea are the second- and third-largest cities.
None of those cities would see a high concentration of wind turbines under the current proposal, but they would have a say in the county-wide zoning rules and a share of any tax revenue generated
A referendum would require collection of at least 1,732 valid signatures within 20 days of the day the commission’s final decision is formally published. Voters could back the commission’s changes or shoot them down. The second option would preserve the 2009 zoning rules upon which the project was designed.
DPCW Board member and Lennox resident Brian Minish thinks northern Lincoln County’s population would support the economic development and tax boost offered by the clean energy project.
Minish points to energy trends and national polling that shows support for wind development among even the most conservative of voters.
Some corporate players now contract to buy power directly from wind and solar farms instead of utilities both to control costs and to appeal to an increasingly renewable energy-conscious public, Minish said.
Google invested directly in an Iowa wind project in 2012 to offset energy costs at a data center located there. Microsoft inked a deal last month to fix utility rates using wind energy to power its Cheyenne, Wyo., data center.
If Lincoln County gets the 400-megawatt Xcel Energy contract it bid for last month, some of that power would be used for Sioux Falls homes.
Shutting down wind power would leave Lincoln County behind, he said.
“Sioux Falls, if we went to a vote, would support wind energy,” Minish said.
Minish doesn’t have any direct polling on popular support for wind energy in Lincoln County, but he sees Commissioner Dave Gillespie’s 67 percent Election Day win as a good sign for his side.
Gillespie signed a contract with the wind project as a landowner.
“His opponent made an issue of wind energy,” Minish said.
The other side of the controversial proposal doesn’t see that vote as a sign of wind energy support.
Rural Canton’s Winnie Peterson heads We Care-SD, the wind-opposing group whose signs blanket parts of southern Lincoln County.
Gillespie had two Republican primary challengers splitting the vote against him in the spring, Peterson said, and his history as a public servant and status as a Republican in a conservative county surely played into his victory in the fall.
Voters who don’t like Gillespie’s stance on wind energy also might have been swayed by his self-imposed removal from the commission’s wind-related decisions.
In the end, Peterson said, neither side of the wind debate can use Gillespie’s victory to read the tea leaves on a possible wind ordinance vote.
“Since we don’t have exit polling, we really don’t know why people voted the way they did,” Peterson said.
Peterson doesn’t have scientific polling, either, but her group did go door-to-door to conduct its own survey and found strong opposition.
“The responses we got were better than 4-to-1 not in favor of the project,” Peterson said.
Minish frames the debate in terms of the property rights of landowners who want to place turbines on their property, but Peterson’s group has consistently pointed to property rights as a factor in their favor.
Both sides have pushed studies on county commissioners saying alternatively that wind turbines have no impact on property values or decimate them. The broadest analysis, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, says there is no impact. Opponents say the study is flawed.
Peterson thinks Sioux Falls voters will want to think hard about possible property value impacts before voting on county-wide wind turbine siting rules.
The fact that wind energy has been built up through production tax credits from the federal government is something else that should give voters outside the project area pause, she said.
The tax credit is scheduled to phase out, but the Dakota Power project hopes to utilize it before that happens.
“This is not a wind energy industry, it’s a wind subsidy industry,” Peterson said.
Wind backers balk at such arguments, saying costs are nearing a point at which the credits aren’t needed. They also reject as scientifically unsubstantiated We Care’s claims of adverse health effects from wind turbine infrasound and flickering shadows.
It’s not clear which side would bring the restrictive rules to a vote, as both sides opposed the compromise ordinances passed last month.
We Care-SD sought a one-mile setback as a precautionary distance, and Peterson expressed disappointment that the planning commission’s endorsement of that distance didn’t earn a majority vote from the full county commission.
Dakota Power Community Wind challenged commissioners to point to any specific scientific reason to push setback distances farther than an already-restrictive three times the tower height.
More than 100 landowners have signed up to participate and invested heavily in what it sees as a viable project.
If the commission sticks with its three-quarter mile setback on Dec. 27 and We Care-SD doesn’t commit to bringing the ordinance to a vote, Minish said DPCW will be forced to collect signatures.
“It’s either that or throw away a million and a half dollars,” Minish said.
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