Hinton Mayor Shelly Newton is still upset about the planned wind farm construction near her town. NextEra Energy Inc.’s project has pre-construction sites across the street from her beloved hobby: restoring her childhood church,turning it into a wedding venue. Now Newton has new national security concerns, after following the project’s development. She said she was worried about the turbines disrupting a nearby flight training route for European-based NATO pilots. “That affects us and is bigger than this little town,” she said. Newton bought the Bethel Road Church in 2012. She’s gathering donations to help with initial work and hopes to get a loan for major portions of the construction. The white structure with a tall steeple and green roof was built in 1904. Behind it sits a small cemetery where some of her relatives are buried, and an arched metal sign reads Bethel Church over the entrance. Wheat undulated in a field behind the church and cemetery lot on a hot and breezy late May afternoon. But now there are heavy trucks carrying rocks, dirt and other construction materials, bumping along the county road that leads to the church just outside Hinton’s city limits. A staging yard for construction materials is being built across the road and down by about 500 feet from the church. When she and city attorney Kimberlee Spady contacted people at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, to talk about NextEra’s project, Newton said they weren’t aware of the development. “We were aghast when we learned we were further ahead of the curve than the Air Force,” Newton said. Her battle against NextEra isn’t new.
She was among a group of residents who sued the company in early 2017. The plaintiffs alleged the company didn’t file all the required information with state and federal officials on each turbine location. Newton also helped write a town ordinance that would prohibit tall structures within 2 miles of city limits. She said then she was concerned about property values falling. NextEra sued the town for allegedly improperly creating the ordinance. She said she was looking into the wind farm’s required notices and discovered some of the planned turbines would be in the path of the NATO training route that pilots take from Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls.”This is an out-of-state company that has foreign connections,” Newton said. “Why are they stopping our military training to be ready? That shouldn’t be right.” NextEra is based in Juno Beach, Florida, and is a division of Florida Power and Light, a public utility company. NextEra spokesman Steve Stengel said his company has a long history of working with military bases around the country and in Oklahoma. The staff is in an ongoing discussion with the Sheppard Air Force Base staff, he said. He said the company still has things to work out with the base and was unable to provide details or a project timeline. NextEra has been doing preparation and pre-construction work in the area, but hasn’t done anything it considers construction commencement, Stengel said.”We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and want to work with the base,” he said. A public affairs officer for Sheppard Air Force base did not immediately respond to interview requests. New laws could prevent a similar situation. The Oklahoma Legislature passed Senate Bill 1576 in the most recent session, preventing construction or operation of a wind farm that would have significant or adverse effects on military training routes or other military operation. The law will be effective July 1. The Wind Coalition Oklahoma Director Mark Yates said the NextEra project had already received a federal predetermination that it presents no hazard before Oklahoma’s law was passed. NextEra’s Minco Wind V is effectively grandfathered into the statute, he said. He said his industry group worked hand-in-hand with the military and the Legislature to develop the new law so it would both protect bases and training routes, and provide more opportunities for more wind development across the state. Yates said he won’t speak for any company individually but speaks for the industry as a whole.”These developers typically look at where the low-level training routes are; the lowest-level routes are 500 feet and some turbines are 476 feet tall,” Yates said. “We’re looking at low-level routes and how to avoid those, as well as take off and drop zones, flight zones and where we do not need to be or to stay out of. That’s really what we’re trying to work out during the next legislative session, to make sure everyone is on the same page.” Renewable energy economist Travis Roach at the University of Central Oklahoma said both the military and the National Weather Service are working with the wind industry and data needs to be shared back and forth with all those parties. Wind turbines can affect the Doppler radar, and the National Weather Service is investigating how to filter out the excess information. That collaboration is going on in a lot of windy areas around the country that could benefit from new wind production, Roach said. It can be difficult for a wind farm developer to make inroads in a community, particularly if there already are groups against the industry. That’s common in polarizing debates, he said.”In an area that doesn’t readily accept alternative views, people get set up into camps,” Roach said. “They get pushback and there is no amount of evidence or data to present that would change people’s minds.” He said if people are in favor of all energy sources, the Hinton wind farm should be considered a good thing.”But I can recognize that your line of sight, you’re protecting the beauty of that, and that’s the reason why they bought the property in the first place,” Roach said. City attorney Spady said she was frustrated because not long after the state law passed, it seemed as if NextEra’s contractors began moving in. They made it very clear construction was happening, she said. Newton said she’s upset because it seems like the federal and state governments aren’t doing enough to regulate the industry.Yates said Oklahoma’s congressional delegation has been closely involved in the federal process for the U.S. Department of Defense’s clearinghouse for wind projects. Oklahoma’s representatives and senators in Washington are at the forefront of the issue and that’s strengthened the relationship. Oklahoma’s military installations are vital to the state, Yates said. Still, Newton hasn’t been able to do any renovations on the church in about a year, because she said she’s been consumed with the wind farm development. She said she is concerned because if NextEra has acted in such a way toward Hinton town officials, they could act similarly to an individual.”To me, government is to be limited,” Mayor Newton said. “But those limitations include protecting and setting rules. Where are the rules? That is how we protect small (town) people.”
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