Fulton County Plan Director Casi Cowles said she seeks expertise when writing ordinances that pertain to specific land uses.
She’s under fire from an anonymous citizen and others opposed to a wind farm proposal. They say she colluded with Renewable Energy Systems, or RES, as it worked to develop Harvest Wind Energy LLC wind farm in Fulton County.
The claims against Cowles are that she allowed RES to write part of the county’s ordinance and did not provide county officials enough information to make an educated decision or cast a vote with citizens’ health, safety and well-being in mind. A letter to the editor on the matter appears on Page 4 of today’s Sentinel. It is based largely on a massive public records request for the communications of county officials.
The first claim comes from an August 2017 email she received from Brad Lila, director of development for RES. The subject line of the email is “Additional Changes to Wind Ordinance.” It shows strike-throughs where RES engineers changed the wording in the county’s ordinance for turbine braking systems. The company’s exact wording was later put into the ordinance.
“I allowed Kenny Anderson to write part of the ordinance, too, if you want to word it that way,” Cowles said in response to the claim. “I’ve allowed elected officials of the Republican Party to write part of the ordinance, if that was their expertise. I’ve allowed contractors to write part of the ordinance.”
She noted how Anderson had previously come to her asking for the definition of an industrialized house to be changed in the county’s ordinance.
“I read it, I passed it through the attorney, I said, ‘You know what, I see your point, I think you’re right, I will give it to the board,’” she said. “The board agreed, so Kenny Anderson wrote part of our ordinance.”
She went on to say that Lila contacted her about the section on controls and brakes for turbines, saying it was outdated. She said she asked if he could provide better language, adding that’s how the email originated.
She said she handed a copy of the suggested change to Area Plan Commission President Eric Straeter, who reportedly took no issue with the proposal. It was then reviewed and approved by the plan commission, she said.
“I don’t vote on any of it. I present options to the board, and they choose,” she said. “I didn’t let [RES] write anything more than I do anybody else.”
She noted anyone can suggest a change to the county’s ordinance. While there are times she agrees with suggested amendments, she said she would not be an advocate for an individual or company.
“My job is to provide information to the board on amendments that I feel are needed,” she said.
Critics of Cowles’ actions also allege she failed to provide county officials information about counties with longer setbacks and provided no scientific data to support that a 1,200-foot setback from a home is sufficient.
Cowles said it is not her job to research the pros and cons of wind turbines for county officials and said she did provide additional counties’ setbacks upon request.
“Whenever we do amendments to the code, I’m dealing with every single legislative body in the county … They all have different priorities,” she said. “I don’t do their research for them because there is no way for me to guess what all these different entities are possibly going to find important.”
She continued: “My job is to try provide them the petition if there is one. In this particular case there was not. It was an amendment to an existing code.”
She said officials’ original intent was to review the county’s ordinance to clarify language related to wind energy development – not to question if it was good or bad for the county.
“Every single one of these elected bodies had already voted on the fact that they wanted wind development in Fulton County,” she said. “The original purpose of what we were doing was amending an already established ordinance. I didn’t feel I needed to send them, which I don’t ever, pros and cons.”
Given that county officials had previously welcomed the idea of wind energy development, Cowles said she felt it unnecessary in the beginning to provide them with information from counties that don’t allow wind turbines.
From the outset, she said, “The question was not – Do we want bigger setbacks?”
The original objective, she said, was to compare counties that have similar ordinances to see where Fulton County’s ordinance needed updated.
“In the August meeting, [Straeter] asked for additional counties, so I gave it to them,” she said. “But again, in the August meeting we weren’t talking about changing an ordinance from agreeing with wind development to not agreeing with it.”
Prior to the plan commission ruling on several amendments, Cowles said she did provide the board with information from counties with longer setbacks. A chart prepared by Cowles and reportedly shared with the board shows setback information for White, Pulaski, Starke, Howard, Benton, Clinton, Tipton, Marshall, Kosciusko, Whitley, Wabash, Miami and Cass counties. Turbine setbacks for Kern County, California, which has the third largest wind farm in the U.S., were also reportedly shared by Cowles.
“I definitely did my job,” Cowles said. “I don’t do their research for them, and the information they asked me for that’s what I provided to them.”
The RES project would have brought more than 130 wind turbines to Wayne, Liberty, Union and Rochester townships in Fulton County. However, the project was brought to a halt in Fulton County after Commissioners Bryan Lewis and Rick Ranstead signed a resolution in December 2017 that prohibits commercial wind turbines in the county.