After a three-hour public hearing and meeting on Tuesday evening, the Madison County Board of Adjustment voted to grant a height variance to Mid-
American Energy for 52 wind turbines proposed for the Earlham area. The variance notes that the turbines proposed would be 494 feet high, which is taller than other turbines in the county. The meeting was attended by around 70 concerned citizens, many of which live near where the proposed Arbor Hills wind farm would go. Citizens have 30 days to appeal the decision in district court.
After about 90 minutes dedicated to speakers from the community and another hour or so of heated discussion among the five-member board, the contentious meeting ended with a split vote.
Citizens unhappy with the decision by law now have 30 days to appeal the board of adjustment’s decision in district court, according to Zoning Administrator Jeff Nicholl.
Several motions were made before the final motion passed, granting the variance.
Mary Terry made the motion against the variance, and Mindy Nelson seconded.
The other three board of adjustment members – chairman Randy Gamble, Randy Johnson and Carrie Larson – voted in favor of the variance.
A motion was then made to take no action, on the variance request. That motion failed by a 3-2 split vote. A third motion was made to table the issue once again and ask for guidance from the board of supervisors and the zoning commission. That motion also failed with a split 3-2 vote.
After those motions failed, board chairman Gamble made a motion to grant the variance, which passed three to two. Nelson and Terry were the two board members to once again vote against the variance.
MidAmerican Energy was granted a special use permit.
Both Terry and Nelson said they were disappointed by the outcome of the meeting.
Terry said that she voted against granting the variance because as the county’s ordinance is written, a variance can only be granted under special circumstances, and she felt MidAmerican did not show those circumstances.
“Our ordinance reads that a variance shall not be granted if it impairs the supply of light to a property or causes harm or impairs public health or safety of the county; under those guidelines, we are not allowed to offer a variance,” Terry said. She also told other board members that in her opinion, granting the variance was opening the board and the county to litigation.
“The law is very clear; we can’t grant the variance,” Terry said.
Gamble, Johnson and Larson disagreed, saying that because past height variances had been granted for cell phone towers, that these variances could be granted now.
“We have a set of guidelines and it’s simply our job to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’; it’s not for us to interpret those laws,” Gamble argued.
Terry argued back that “the county’s zoning laws were inadequate for this decision.”
According to Nelson, who quoted information from Iowa State University, a board of adjustment’s ability to grant variances is one of the “least understood and most abused” aspects of the board’s duties.
Both Nelson and Terry asked other board members to explain their vote on record and how they came to the decision that “granting the variance was following the law”.
None of the board members spoke their reasoning out loud, though by law, they had to write why they voted the way they did on the finding of facts paper that was then turned into the zoning administrator and will now become public record.
Public weighs in
The board of adjustment gave people on both sides of the issue five minutes to speak.
Multiple citizens spoke against the wind farm, while others said they just want clear guidelines to be in place.
Around 15 community members spoke in opposition.
The only individuals addressed in favor were representatives from MidAmerican Energy.
Several citizens requested that the board of adjustment put a moratorium on the issue until the county’s comprehensive plan is updated. They also asked, if a moratorium is not granted, that the board of adjustment table the issue again, to allow time for more information to be gathered.
Seven representatives from MidAmerican Energy attended the meeting, speaking to address concerns from the community.
One concern addressed was whether MidAmerican Energy would take down turbines, should they become obsolete. MidAmerican said that they would.
Wind turbines are taken down if they haven’t been generating power for one year, according to the contract.
Other concerns brought to the table included decline in property value; health issues related to shadow, flicker and noise; as well as the issue of easements. The welfare of local wildlife also came up in discussion and how the wind turbines would affect birds, bats, insects and other area fauna.
After the speakers concluded, the board called for a five-minute recess before announcing their decision.
Ronni Scott was one of the citizens who addressed the board with concerns. After the meeting concluded, she said she was “dumbfounded” by the board’s decision.
“How can the three who approved the variance do so without explaining their legal position to do so? They had their minds made up before the meeting even began,” Scott said.
Several citizens, who asked to remain anonymous, said that lawsuits were already in the works to appeal the decision.
The turbines proposed would be located mostly in Penn Township, but also in small sections of Madison and Jackson townships. According to MidAmerican representatives, construction should begin on the turbines next year.
The county planning and zoning director is Jeff Nicholl.
Board of adjustment members include Mindy Nelson, Mary Terry, Carrie Larson, Randy Johnson and chairman Randy Gamble.
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