PAXTON – The meeting room in the basement of the Ford County Jail was filled to capacity for Monday night’s meeting of the Ford County Board’s zoning committee, perhaps with residents who hoped to learn the group’s decisions about revising the county’s ordinances regulating wind farms.
No action was taken, however. Committee members listened to public comments and then loosely discussed whether they were in agreement on any of the proposals presented by Matt Rock, who is the county’s zoning enforcement officer and also a member of the zoning committee.
Rock sought to have the committee reach consensus on several matters under consideration to be changed such as buried utility depth, compatible geographical information software for county mapping, interference with any electronic transmissions such as television or internet, and company time limits to respond and to mediate complaints.
Other subjects up for discussion such as decommissioning and potential noise and setback requirements elicited varied comments from committee members that showed a lack of consensus.
“It seems obvious to me that we’re not close to being done,” committee chairman Dave Hastings said.
While another meeting of the committee is planned, Hastings said setting that date would have to wait until he had his own calendar in front of him.
At least 40 observers, 10 of whom signed up to address the board, were lined around three sides of the room, with rows of chairs placed three-deep in some places. In addition, all five committee members and five county board members were present.
Four of the 10 speakers represented wind farm operators that are either currently active in the county or actively seeking to establish landowner interest in a wind farm – Michael Cressner with Orion, James Madson and Jody Law with Pattern Energy Group, and Erin Baker with Apex Clean Energy. All said they were interested in the committee’s thoughts and direction, vowing to answer any questions, if needed.
Two speakers were landowners or farmers who favored windmills. Dennis Kampen said there is a need for additional electricity and a need for it to be generated in a green manner versus coal-fired generating plants.
“They’re going to build them somewhere,” Kampen said of wind farms, indicating his opinion was to let them build here to gain the economic benefits for the county’s economy.
Superintendent Jeff Bryan of the Tri-Point school district presented a clear-cut example of the economic advantages. He said the majority of the Kelly Creek wind farm project is within the district’s boundaries.
Bryan said the district’s equalized assessed valuation (EAV) increased from $66 million last year to $92 million this year. He said that increase means nearly $750,000 is added to the school district’s income, an amount that far outweighs the possible $140,000 the district might lose in state aid for its increased receipts.
For every two-megawatt turbine built in the district, Bryan said the school district gains $8,000. He said the wind farm is the “biggest game in town for us – it’s our lifeline.”
One admittedly small property owner was against the idea of wind farms. Joann Fetzner said she is very concerned with setbacks, since she will be living in an area of wind turbines. “There are those of us who really don’t want to live around them,” she said.
Cindy Ihrke and Ann Ihrke urged members to consider documents and expert testimony they had made available, mostly providing decommissioning language.
“It’s imperative that everything is stated clearly,” Cindy Ihrke said in referring to decommissioning requirements and related financial guarantees from the wind farm originators or subsequent owners. She said cost estimates to remove each windmill range from $200,000 to $700,000, an expense that potentially could become the liability of the county if the financial guarantees required of wind farm operators are not strong enough.
State’s Attorney Andrew Killian reported that the approval process consists of the Zoning Committee making a recommendation to the full Ford County Board. The resulting zoning ordinance changes are then reviewed by the county’s eight-member planning commission, who recommends approval or disapproval on the changes to the county’s zoning board of appeals.
Killian said if the zoning board of appeals were ultimately to reject the board’s wishes on wind farm zoning ordinances, it would take a three-quarter majority vote of the full county board’s membership to override a potential rejection. He said that means at least nine county board members would be required to vote to override, if necessary, regardless of the number of members attending the county board meeting.