When the Coalition for Rural Property Rights stormed the Faribault County Courthouse on Tuesday, it was not an officially licensed organization.
But in claiming support from nearly 90 percent of Pilot Grove Township residents, overflowing the county commissioners room with agricultural advocates and literally standing in unison to plead for greater setbacks and a more restrictive ordinance pertaining to wind turbines in the county, it made its stance as official as could be.
The Coalition brands itself as “a group of Iowa landowners standing against the encroachment of industrial wind installations,” but its representatives at Tuesday’s meeting mostly identified themselves as Pilot Grove residents particularly ones perturbed at a Rose Lake Wind Project proposed by the independent power producer EDF Renewable Energy.
With at least four locals reading prepared statements, several others chiming in from behind walls of other guests and the County Board forced to oversee crowded seating arrangements as much as the discussion at hand, the Coalition prefaced a visit from EDF’s Shanelle Montana, a senior project developer, with adamant requests for a crackdown on turbines.
Not one of the guest speakers denied the financial benefit of wind generation, which Montana went on to crown as “an additional resource” for “cheap electricity” and therefore an obvious draw for local businesses. But complaints of everything from noisy turbine malfunctions to an alleged ignorance of the county’s agricultural roots rang loud and clear as the Coalition suggested the commissioners adopt the Goodhue County wind-structure ordinance, which enforces greater setbacks than that of Faribault County’s renewable energy restrictions.
Paul Carr, who said he has mostly been a lifelong Pilot Grove Township resident, helped kick off the campaign.
“I come here,” Carr said, “representing and on behalf of about 88 percent of Pilot Grove Township residents, who have signed a petition to increase a setback of commercial wind generators to non-participating residences.”
Saying that current setbacks, which dictate that wind turbines can be placed roughly 1,000 to 1,500 feet from such residences, are “not far enough to prevent material harm” such as added noise, shadow flicker and “a complete change of environment,” Carr asked that local constituents be prioritized over the economic boosts of projects like the one proposed by EDF.
Montana later countered by suggesting the EDF project, which would span from Pilot Grove Township into Martin County, would not begin taking shape until 2020. By that point, such a project would not be federally subsidized, therefore potentially lessening the financial burden on local communities.
But concerns remained.
“Most object to an object roughly the size of a Boeing 747, over 400 feet in the air and constantly moving, being placed within 1,000 to roughly 1,500 feet of them,” Carr said. “Without more setbacks for large wind turbines, the county may find itself with more money to spend on a public garage (only) to serve its fewer residents.”
Carolyn Zierke, a local agronomist of 25 years, wondered aloud why counties, especially Faribault County, would even consider uprooting or impeding upon signature farmlands for the sake of wind projects.
“Why are counties overlaying an industrial zone on top of a productive agricultural zone?” she asked. “A turbine is not a piece of farm equipment, and it is not a farm structure.”
Dan Moore, once a director of project development for Renewable Energy Solutions and one of the developers behind Blue Earth’s Big Blue Windfarm, agreed.
“I sat here in this same seat 14 years ago,” Moore said, referencing a decades-old visit to the County Board regarding turbine development. “Today, I am here as a retired wind generator developer … and I am asking for the adoption of the Goodhue County ordinance.”
Reviewing his own history in campaigning for wind energy, Moore reminded the board that he helped other turbines, including those at Winnebago’s Corn Plus ethanol plant, come to life.
But after discovering some of the faults of turbine projects, particularly noisy side effects, he made it clear Tuesday that he was standing with none other than the waves of Pilot Grove people behind him.
“Had I known they would be this noisy, guys,” he said, referring to the Big Blue turbines, “listen, I would never have started developing that project.”
Producing an apple from his shirt pocket and leaving it on the guest podium in front of the commissioners, Moore asked the board to overlook promises of more money for the concerns of the rural residents.
“Don’t get mesmerized by the apple money,” he said. “Don’t let the illusion of big money generated by these big machines cloud your judgment in protecting the residents who are forced to live around these big machines. These are the families that have elected you guys to protect them, so please don’t bite the apple.”
Others reiterated the alluring, albeit apparently deceiving, role of money in the matter.
“In the end, it seems like the money always wins,” one man said from the mass of guests, saying the county already houses 22 industrial-sized turbines. “EDF is on the agenda after us, and I’m sure they’re going to tell you how great this is, how every project they’ve built has left counties rich and happy, because that’s what this big push for wind is all about money.”
When Montana, of EDF, was finally summoned to speak, weaving through the crowd of standing guests to make herself seen, she did not ignore money’s part in the discussion.
But her first point centered on the fact that EDF will not pursue any project, let alone one that allegedly threatens the well-being of nearly an entire township, without the community’s support.
“I’m not here to shove a project down anyone’s throat,” Montana said, recounting her own upbringing as a “farm girl.” “I’m just here to present something. We’re only here if we have a willing partner, and that partner is a community.”
Claiming that the state of Minnesota already owns some of the strictest wind turbine setbacks in the country, Montana assured some of the concerned residents that if any malfunctioning or noisy structures reached certain decibel levels, they would be shut down.
“A decommissioning plan is required with these projects,” she noted.
All things considered, Montana still urged the commissioners to weigh their options.
“This is up to the community,” she said. “I just want you to know that if you have an additional setback, I cannot efficiently and effectively develop a low-cost project.”
Pilot Grove visitors flocked to the EDF developer after departing the commissioners room, some alleging that a February public meeting on the proposed turbine project was available through “private invitation only,” and others saying they heard EDF partners are contracted not to speak negatively about polarizing projects.
But more talks regarding the future of the project, and the ordinance that might inhibit it, are on the docket.
Commissioner Greg Young, who acknowledged most of the concerns stemmed from a township he represents, agreed with board chairman John Roper that a work session with the county’s Planning and Zoning department was in order. A unanimous vote by the commissioners then scheduled that session for April 18, immediately following the board’s next regular meeting.
And now, having shared or considered opinions from both sides of a windy spectrum, the county, Montana and the Coalition for Rural Property Rights wait.
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