In 2014, Ohio lawmakers slipped into an unrelated bill a major change that restricted the development of wind farms in Ohio, a shift that had the potential to impact rural schools’ tax revenues, the state’s economic competitiveness, public safety and quality of life, and the environment.
Wind-energy advocates say this change – by requiring larger setbacks from property lines for the tall wind turbines – effectively zoned out new wind projects in Ohio, leaving us in the dust as neighboring states friendlier to this green-energy technology sited wind farms. They note high-tech companies such as Amazon are looking to locate where the power is greener. They say the restrictive setbacks are a setback for the state’s job and technology prospects.
Proponents, of course, are happy with the changes. They say the wind-farm turbines can fall or hurl broken blades or chunks of ice. They cite noise and shadow flicker, questioning effects to human health. And they say the blades can chop up birds and bats.
If this sounds like a complex matter that demanded full and transparent public debate, with testimony from affected residents and environmental and industry experts, the Ohio Senate disagreed in 2014; it passed the last-minute change with little discussion. That’s an ugly way to impose public policy.
But as early as this weekend, the legislature is considering a fast fix to its former fast fix: An amendment proposed for the state budget bill would revise the 3-year-old restrictions to make it easier to place the wind turbines.
Slipping a controversial change into the state budget is a time-honored bit of legislative legerdemain; changes destined to be talked to death in committee, or killed by powerful House or Senate leaders so that they never see a floor vote, can be shoveled with dizzying speed into the budget sausage grinder.
While this time the proposed rule change has had substantial committee hearings, accelerating its passage by tossing it into the budget is not the way to go. In general, turning the budget bill into a Christmas tree (adorned with amendments) makes a travesty of the legislative process and is apt to have unforeseen consequences.
A rule change this substantial deserves to be passed as stand-alone legislation. It appears to be a reasonable, needed compromise that can survive on its merits. A rule change has impressive supporters, including Amazon, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, commissioners from several Ohio counties and the Columbus Partnership.
Before 2014, the setback rule for wind turbines, or the minimum distance between a turbine and the nearest property line, was about 550 feet, based on the height of turbines should they fall.
The 2014 amendment changed setbacks to about 1,300 feet, a distance that wind-energy leaders say reduced the number of turbines that could be placed, making projects infeasible.
The current compromise, sponsored by Sen. Cliff Hite, R-Findlay, sets a limit of about 600 feet. Advocates say this would spur wind-project development, creating $4.2 billion in economic activity, $660 million in payments to school districts and local governments, $440 million for property owners hosting the turbines, 13,000 jobs, and clean electricity for Ohioans.
Plus the massive turbines look really cool – unless neighbors don’t like the new vista and the noise.
Both sides have strong arguments. Ohioans deserve the chance to hear them through the normal legislative vetting process. The massive budget bill is no place to make this vital economic decision.
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