The Board of Zoning Appeals will soon decide if the Jordan Creek wind project is in Warren County residents’ best interests.
The project promises to bring tens of millions of dollars for local economic development and up to 15 permanent full-time jobs, to this community where farmland and agriculture play a heavy role in residents’ day-to-day lives, in the rural county of just 8,269 people.
The desire to stimulate the local economy, so basic businesses such as restaurants stay open, is driving the effort to put in place large, non-manufacturing businesses, such as the wind project from Orion Renewable Energy Group.
One Prairie Township resident, Suzi Etchison, testified Nov. 9 during the second BZA meeting against the wind project. She presented a tally during her testimony that 28,792 acres belong to people opposed to the wind project, with 28,153 acres owned by people she termed as friendly toward it.
Several wind project proponents have voiced their confidence in Orion Renewable Energy, saying the company is known as trustworthy and community friendly.
“… they will do everything they can do to make the project suitable for both parties,” said Bob Silver, who has relatives in Earl Park, in Benton County.
Orion developed the first wind project in Indiana more than a decade ago in Earl Park, Benton County, which still operates today and is co-owned by the company.
Multiple public meetings in Warren County show a divided slice of the community that’s split 50/50 between people hopeful for both personal and community-wide gain, and others who say the wind turbines will created safety concerns, mar the landscape and the horizon, and bring health problems, including migraine headaches and insomnia.
Meanwhile, some county officials tout the promise of improved roads and need for funds to boost economic development, and several economic development directors from the region have spoken in favor of the wind project.
Leading up to the imminent BZA vote, the County Commission and Council changed existing policies and created three new agreements – one each for roads, project decommissioning and economic development – to allow development of a wind project. (Those agreements are available at http://www.warrencounty.in.gov/jordan-creek-wind-farm.)
Some county residents say the changes weaken once-strong limitations on noise levels.
The audience at the Warren County Commission’s early Monday morning meetings went from a couple of regulars to a packed room, in the meeting after the Jordan Creek wind farm project came before the three-member body.
A sign-in sheet from an Aug. 4 meeting of the Commission listed 19 people, a sizable crowd for the compact Commissioners’ Room.
In a County Commission meeting Oct. 11, a divided body voted 2-1 to approve two of the agreements, on roads and project decommissioning. Commissioners Steve Eberly and Tony Briles voted for the agreements, while Commissioner Tom Hetrick voted against both.
Briles, who received criticism from the audience for moving outside of the county, did not run for reelection in 2016.
Eberly is also the county’s economic development director. Road improvements have been chief among the countywide improvements he has championed as coming from approval of the project.
Hetrick read a statement at the time, and said he lacked confidence in the agreements because they don’t represent the best interests of Warren County. By this meeting, about 40 people were in attendance and white folding chairs were placed in the room to accommodate the crowd.
The two agreements are held by third parties.
A third agreement, the economic development agreement, was approved by the County Commission on Aug. 29, while the Council Council approved a tax abatement 4-3, in a joint meeting where each group voted separately.
At that meeting, members of the public filled all the seats and standing room, and overflowed into the hallway at the Williamsport Learning Center, where questions were fielded by Orion developer Michael Cressner.
One concern of local landowners is a desire for definitive rights of way. Rick Hall, a partner with the Barnes & Thornburg law firm in Indianapolis, is counsel retained by the county.
Hall said at the meeting that rights of way would be determined once the roads are pinpointed for the project, which would occur sometime after a special exception approval.
First BZA meeting, Oct. 19
That earliest Commission sign-in sheet didn’t list speakers’ positions on the wind project, but by the first three BZA meetings on the special exception request, a strategy to move people through the signup process and to document their positions, names and addresses had been formalized.
All speakers who provided public comment were sworn in, so their testimonies were under oath, after they clearly stated their names and addresses.
Proponents and opponents of the project stood in line in clusters, and nearly entire sign-in sheets are dedicated to one position or the other.
The Board of Zoning Appeals meetings were held at the spacious fine arts auditorium at Seeger High School, with each one cut off after three hours of comment, at 9 p.m.
The sign-in sheet from the first BZA meeting Oct. 19 lists 358 people, in addition to three entries for journalists, seven entries for employees of Orion Renewable Energy, and one for the attorney employed by Burt Etchison and numerous other landowners opposed to the project.
Of the remaining people, 150 were listed as supporting the project, 173 were against and 35 wrote neutral or left the space blank.
This largest meeting was equal to about 4.3 percent of the total county population, though some in attendance were from the region outside Warren County’s borders. Many of the attendees in the first two meetings live in the townships where wind turbines would be placed or close to the land bordering them.
The meeting didn’t start at 6 p.m., as intended, because a line of people stretching 20 feet outside the building waited to sign the attendance sheet and take a seat.
Fifteen minutes later, BZA Chairwoman Wilma Shackleton began the meeting with:
“We are your neighbors, we are here for that purpose tonight.”
Shackleton read through the rules of procedure, which she reminded the crowd of in subsequent meetings, during the few moments when boos, clapping or other noise disturbed the proceedings.
The five members of the BZA – Kathy Poole, Marty Conseco, Marty Blessing, Scott Mathis and chairwoman Wilma Shackleton – were joined at the front of the room by Zoning Director John Kuiper and zoning attorney John Larson.
45 Minutes to Orion
The company’s allotted 45 minutes for its presentation began with a short overview from Orion attorney Mary Salada, who said 450 certified mailings were sent out by the company. She presented a packet of information to Kuiper for each member of the board that would follow the evening’s discussion.
Salada said she was confident the board would be comfortable that the seven findings of fact would be met, and that the company would rely on various experts and present a critical mass of scientific and academic analysis.
She introduced Cressner, who had joined her at the podium.
The private Oakland, Calif., based company has a long history in wind and some solar energy, Cressner said, with 4,000 turbines in construction or operation. The company co-owns the Benton County project near Earl Park, the first wind project developed in the state.
“We want to begin construction in 2018,” he said. “There are many rumors and a lot of misinformation. A lot of this is just frankly not true.”
Cressner said the company had issued no gag orders to landowners and that the company would not operate that way. He said Orion’s presenters would share a lot of evidence that has passed the rigors of being peer reviewed.
In its first decade, the project will generate about $11 million for the county, he said.
“Wind is cheap, the price is stable and customers want clean domestic renewable energy,” he said.
Benefits he mentioned included keeping the family farm in place, $7.5 million across all phases in the first five years in economic development payments, property tax payments after the expiration of a partial tax abatement and vast improvements in road quality.
The company’s tax abatement in Phase One is 100 percent for years one, two and three, according to Hall, who spoke next. He said the company will make Pilot payments to the county, even if state law changes.
Eberly spoke next.
“We have to take into consideration the impact on all the residents of Warren County,” Eberly said. “Warren County believes that Orion is a good company. We truly believe they have genuine intentions for our county.
“The hardest part of being an elected official, it’s certainly not about winning or losing, it’s about looking into the future.”
Connie Nyler, a former economic development officer for White County, from Monticello, said she generally supports wind projects, “but it has to be what works for your community.”
She, too, talked about road improvements and farmland preservation.
“Today, White County has 60 miles of brand-new heavy haul county roads at no cost to the county, a huge benefit to those rural areas,” Nyler said.
She said that the economic development payments from wind projects will keep other major development from taking over farmland.
Next up was Kenneth Kaliski, senior director of acoustics and system dynamics practice at RSG, with 30 years of experience. He said he is a licensed professional engineer and a member of the Institute of Noise Control Engineering.
Kaliski, on the Warren County noise standard, said the standard allows for lower sound levels where hearing is more sensitive. In summary, the maximum sound levels are modeled to be at least 10 dB below the standard.
Solada summed up the medical expert’s testimony, who was not available for the meeting, but she said could be available for questions at the next meeting.
Solada said infrasound and low frequency sound aren’t shown to create health impacts, and that individuals with sleep disorders or migraines, and children with autism could feel effects from multiple undiagnosed causes.
She said that no clear association exists of wind turbine noise and any reported disease or harm to human health.
Next for Orion was Sally Slavens, Benton County plan director. She lives next to wind turbines, but does not have any on her land.
Slavens gives tours of the turbines by choice, she said.
“The air conditioner on our patio makes more noise than turbines do,” Slavens said. She added that wildlife still lives in their vicinity, including coyotes and three different new kinds of birds.
Jay Haley, EAPC: Wind Energy,who has more than 30 years of wind consulting experience, explained shadow flicker. It happens when a wind turbine moves between the sun and a home. Shadows on open ground don’t flicker, he said.
Flicker occurs in the presence of sunshine, with the sun angled at least three degrees above the horizon, at least 20 percent of the sun covered by a blade, turbine blades that are moving and a window exposed to the shadow.
When the shadow is cast in a room, the window acts like a large lightbulb that’s being turned on and off in the same room. Flicker is most prevalent in the spring and is not seen for more than two periods each year, he said.
A consensus U.S. industry standard for shadow flicker is no more than 30 hours per year, he said.
The next major topic was property valuations.
Sara Coers, a resident of Hendricks County and an MAI appraiser, previously looked independently at an area of White County that includes Brookston, Chalmers and Reynolds. She said she found no consistent change in 59 sales and resales within one mile of a wind turbine there, and that among six real estate agents, five saw no impact and one saw a positive in the good neighbor agreement of the local wind project.
Benton County assessor Kelly Balensiefer said the tax rate there from 2009 to today decreased from 1.1582 percent to .9857.
The President of Orion Energy Group, Ryan McGraw, presented safety and setback information.
Blade throw occurs when a blade detaches or breaks off and is thrown, McGraw said.
A report by Dr. J. Rogers, “A method for defining wind turbine setback standards,” assumes someone is always standing everywhere throughout a wind farm, making it an unfair report to assess the danger, he said.
The company instead used a report compiled for UK-based HSE, which coordinated with a U.S. renewable energy lab and used information from across Europe.
“Once you’re to 500 feet away from a wind turbine and beyond, the risk is 100 times less likely than being struck by lightning,” McGraw said.
With ice throw, ice accumulates on the blades. If the turbine kept spinning, then bystanders are at risk of being struck by ice. A study concluded that a house about 950 feet from a wind turbine might be hit by ice one time every 500,000 years, he said.
McGraw said there is no blade throw or ice throw causing harm in the history of wind turbines in the U.S.
In closing, Solada and Cressner proposed a setback distance of 1,500 from the center of the wind farm, 46 decibels of noise for nonparticipants and for participants of 49 decibels, a shadow flicker time of no more than 30 hours per year and would waive the need for consent if someone wants to build within the reciprocal setback.
They would also address TV reception problems and repair any drainage or tile damage issues, and will provide final locations and training to emergency services. They added a good neighbor agreement, giving any nonparticipant landowner within 1.5 miles of a turbine $1,500 per year after commercial operations begin, for the life of the project.
Rebuttal by attorney Steve Snyder
Snyder, of Syracuse, Ind., was originally contacted by Burt Etchison, who was later joined by numerous other landowners with concerns about commercial wind turbines. Etchison is the owner of Stewart Grain, a company located in Prairie Township that has been in operation for 105 years.
Snyder began with a discussion of the requirements to obtain approval of a special exception, including that there be no substantial adverse impact on the character of the neighborhood, traffic conditions, public utilities, or matters of health and safety.
He said that approval or denial of a special exception can not frustrate the purpose of the zoning ordinance or the comprehensive plan.
“You can attach conditions that provide the safeguards you deem necessary,” he said.
The impact of a wind turbine convergence system is greater than a barn you would build, he said.
He cited a 2001 economic and financial study from Clarkson University.
“From that standpoint, what you will find in this particular exhibit, one to three miles property value reduction between 15 percent and 30 percent,”he said.
The wind turbines, he said, can be seen “graceful like a swan or disruptive like a swan.”
He returned again to property values, and said an appraiser from northwest Illinois, Michael Cann, reviewed Tipton County, Ind., showing that land values dropped. His recommendation to avoid significant decrease in value is to deny the wind project, Snyder said.
He suggested that if the project is approved, setbacks be increased to at least two miles, limitations be placed on hours of operation, height and decibels, red lights be activated by radar, and a condition for annual licensing be the elimination or satisfactory resolution of project nuisances. He also suggested that a condition of approval be a bonded guarantee for any properties within three miles of a wind turbine.
Infrasound, he said, is one of the most significant dangers, and said people don’t sleep normally and aren’t getting the deep sleep they need. He also referenced sick building syndrome.
“What you’re dealing with is something you can’t hear, you can’t see, but your brain is affected by it,” he said.
Next he broached the zoning ordinance changes made by county officials. Snyder said the county had sophisticated provisions in the ordinance regarding a special exception for a wind farm, which was tossed out in August at the request of Orion.
“Why would they want to change it, if they could meet them?” he said.
His discussion regarding setbacks was tied to avoiding any negative impacts from wind turbines. For instance, he referenced reports from Europe requiring setbacks of 2,500 to 3,000 square feet, and effects from shadow flicker at 4,500 feet.
He continued, referencing the effect on birds, bats and their habitats, and said 600,000 bats a year, no a day, die flying into these turbines. He said that Orion’s effort to set turbines back from Pine Creek and the Wabash River were evidence that someone there thought there was a danger to wildlife.
He also said that coal fired power plants are being replaced by natural gas power plants, that the cost of aerial application to crops will increase and that the wind project’s bond expires after eight years, with renewals every five years after that.
“You need a 30 year bond,” he said.
He returned to setbacks, saying 1,500 feet from a residence wasn’t enough, that a minimum of 2,600 feet is suggested by experts, and that sound experts insist that isn’t adequate, it’s more like a mile and a half.
“Make conditions well thought through and not just for the benefit of Orion,” he said.
Second meeting, Nov. 9
At the Nov. 9 meeting, 286 people signed in. Again, seven Orion employees, Snyder and one journalist were listed as in attendance.
Opponents and proponents in this meeting were about evenly split, at about 115 each, but citizens without positions or who were neutral increased to 46.
Suzi Etchison, spouse of Burt Etchison, spoke Nov. 9 against any industrial wind parks in Warren County. She presented petitions asking for 2,500 foot setbacks to Kuiper for the BZA members.
She said she had 315 individual signed petitions from residents or landowners in the ERA and 225 individual petitions from people who lived along the border of the ERA.
She said that a tally by acreage showed that 28,792 acres belonged to people opposed to the wind project, with 28,153 she termed as friendly toward it.
She stressed the desire to avoid any shadow flicker.
“These are our homes, this is where we have to live,” she said.
The Etchisons are one of several families who have attended multiple Commission, Council and BZA meetings to ask questions, and voice their concerns and objections to the project, along with the Evans family and several others.
After Etchison’s 10 minutes, Shackleton asked that five people line up at a time, to move through commenters as quickly as possible. Each individual from this point forward received three minutes to speak.
Proponents of the wind project wore blue shirts decorated with wind turbines, while opponents wore buttons with wind turbines crossed out by red no symbols.
When Shackleton said “I’ll take the guy in the blue shirt back there,” low giggles went up, because a number of people in blue shirts, and white no buttons, were located throughout the crowd.
Steve Fellure, from Attica, commended Orion for having an office downtown since 2014 and operating in Benton County since 2004.
Next up, Nancy Clark, of West Lebanon, said she questioned the validity of the commissioners’ vote on the three agreements.
“I’m not sure they are the right choice,” she said, and mentioned that one commissioner wasn’t a resident and she believed it should have been tabled.
Burt Etchison said he wanted a wind turbine about 11 years ago.
“I studied them and discovered that you can’t make a decision about something like this without asking a lot of questions,” Etchison said.
He mentioned the increased height of planned Warren turbines compared with the turbines in Benton County.
Michael Evans, a regular voice of opposition to the wind project, said he has been in Warren County for 51 years, and said Seeger High School is a great education.
“I have a lot of friends in blue shirts and hope we end this time still being friends,” Evans said.
“Four guys from California with a big company can disrupt friendships and draw lines between us in a small rural county,” he said. “There’s no chance of ever returning back to what Warren County once was.”
Bob Silver, a Warren County landowner, commended Orion as a company that is trustworthy and community friendly.
“… they will do everything they can do to make the project suitable for both parties,” Silver said.
Jack Dalton, from Williamsport and a landowner in Prairie Township, said he called people he knows in Benton County.
“Only one person had a negative comment about wind turbines,” Dalton said. “Occasionally they are irritating. Then he went on to say, but the economic value for Benton County far outweighs that irritation in my life.
“I think the economic benefit for the county over a 30 year period would be tremendous.”
Charity Shettle, who lives in Prairie Township, opposes the development.
“Suzi was right that it’s not a farm, it’s an industry complex – 148, 50-story buildings around our houses.”
Margy Clark Morgan, from Williamsport, who lives on the edge of the ERA, spoke on on her own behalf and her three sisters.’
She said that 50 percent of people in Warren County do not have high school education, but 50 percent are college graduates with many children on free and reduced lunches.
They value “developing jobs for all of people, haves and have-nots.”
Multiple employees and the owners of Hubner Seed Co. said the company will probably have to move about 42 jobs out of the county, because aerial applicators either won’t work among the windmills or will charge more per application, making the company less competitive.
Resident Dennis Mark Stephen used a large framed photograph to make his point. Taken by his wife, it featured him, his youngest son, Kyle Stephen, and his father Denny running a combine in the background, on their land in Benton County when wind turbines came there.
“I can’t help but think back about 60 years ago,” he said, “a similar board sat in someone’s home deliberating consolidating the school system. Detractors wanted to resist change.”
He thanked Steve Eberly for the countless hours he spent trying to bring businesses such as this one to the county.
Adam Zumwalt, a pilot from Sheldon, Ill., spoke about aerial application. He said that pilots can see the wind turbines, but they can’t see highlines. “That’s what we hit,” he said, “but no one wants to take down high lines.”
Scott Beckett, a Judyville resident with Williamsport property, said he’s opposed to the project in its current state.
“The question is how far are roads going to get fixed, to what extent and what roads in particular? What roads have what easements?” Beckett said.
Third meeting, Nov. 28
In the third BZA meeting Nov. 28, 206 total people signed in, including one journalist, eight Orion employees or experts and Snyder. In this meeting, about 96 people signed in as for the project, 88 against and 22 remained neutral or did not state a position.
A television news crew was in attendance at each meeting. At the third BZA meeting, a Lafayette newspaper photographer crouched near the podium, taking closeups of locals.
A vote had been expected at the end of this meeting, but time wasn’t available at the meeting’s end for closing remarks and rebuttal from Orion and Snyder, respectively, and for BZA discussion before a vote.
The meeting began with about 50 to 60 people standing to take the oath.
By this point, testimonies centered around many of the same issues mentioned in Orion’s presentation, Snyder’s rebuttal and previous testimony.
Among those who spoke and their concerns were:
Kimberly Houser, daughter of Mike Evans, spoke against the wind farm. She said she had lunch with Eberly, made many trips to the courthouse and completed hours of independent research. She has lived in Warren County for 27 years, and said many of her former teachers and a former superintendent are against the wind farm.
Doug Allison, a 17 year resident of Warren County, teacher, coach and administrator said he’s against the wind farm.
A letter from a superintendent in Armstrong, Ill., was read that listed medical issues among local children that included headaches, lack of sleep, jaw issues, families moving out of the district. The superintendent’s name was William C. Mulvaney.
Bob Huber, of West Lebanon, spoke about the possibility that he would need to move about 40 jobs with his company, Huber Seeds, out of the county.
Paul Jackson, director of Benton County Economic Development, presented a three minute video of Benton County residents who are pro-wind project and their experiences.
Khole Stephen, who represents the fourth generation of the Stephen family, said his great-grandfather moved their farm in 1949 from Benton to Warren. He said Seeger is recognized as a Grade A school this year.
“Why should we stop here?” he said. “Why has it been OK to be complacent?”
He said he represents the younger generation, and fewer and fewer are returning to the county.
Other speakers mentioned the potential impact on animal agriculture in the county and the effect that wind turbines could have on agricultural innovation.
Jim Switzer spoke on the representation that taxes will be lower.
“That’s very true for certain people, not the county as a whole,” Switzer said.
Several local politicians spoke in favor of the turbines, include John Comer from the County Council and Steve Cox, chair of Benton County Commission.
Theodore Hartke, an Illinois land surveyor and engineer, said he was supportive of wind turbines being constructed near his home in that state. He said noise from the turbines affected his family, so they couldn’t sleep and the turbines were turned off 51 nights so his family could sleep. Hartke became emotional and said his family had to move and that the letter from Mulvaney referenced his children. He said he now speaks out against wind farms.
A vote is expected tonight, Dec. 12, during the fourth BZA meeting.
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