DEXTER, Ia. – The battle playing out over a second crop of wind turbines that MidAmerican Energy is proposing near this small town is like many playing out across Iowa and the nation.
In the home of the famed covered bridges of Madison County, the utility plans to stand up 52 turbines that will be as tall as skyscrapers – towering 490 feet.
That’s led to a tug of war between those who believe that the whooshing, flashing and flickering from the massive turbines will ruin their quality of life and others who see them as an economic windfall in easement payments and tax revenue.
Politicians and power companies proudly promote Iowa’s status as the nation’s leader in wind energy as a percentage of its overall electric generation, but neighbors of proposed wind farms are increasingly challenging the projects.
“One complaint we have is that most of these property owners (signing agreements with MidAmerican) don’t live on the land where the turbines will be used,” said Dave Marsh, whose home with a new pool overlooks a farm field that will host one of the turbines.
Unlike neighboring Adair County, where MidAmerican’s push to build 275 more turbines this year promises to alter the landscape even more dramatically, Madison County has a zoning ordinance that defines when special permits and variances for such projects should be allowed.
The ordinance was adopted in 1966 and last amended in 2004 – before subsidies and tax credits positioned Iowa as a clean energy leader and MidAmerican poured $8 billion into the state.
Today, those ordinances are often arbiters, determining which projects move forward and which don’t. But the ordinances – when they exist at all – vary from county to county.
Eighteen rural Iowa counties still lack any zoning ordinances, let alone specific wind energy guidelines. At least 21 counties have wind ordinances.
After public squalls that rivaled the fights over hog confinements in the 1990s, more counties are drafting or amending rules to better outline their vision for agricultural land and how wind energy fits in.
“If we don’t think this out, we are just fixing as we go. And it’s always better to have a plan,” said Patrick Dillon, a Sumner attorney who, on behalf of residents, successfully fought an up-and-running turbine project this year near Fairbank.
“Each year, more than half the energy used by our customers comes from wind energy, which helps to keep rates low – currently MidAmerican Energy’s rates are 32 percent below the national average,” according to a statement from spokesperson Tina Hoffman.
State leaders also credit Iowa’s growing amount of wind-generated green energy with helping persuade Facebook, Microsoft and Google to establish data centers in Council Bluffs and the Des Moines area, attracting billions of dollars in capital investment and hundreds of jobs. Data centers are intensive energy users, and the companies want more of it to come from clean, renewable sources.
MidAmerican projects that the Madison County farm will generate about $51 million in property taxes over the life of the project, as well as $37 million in easement payments to landowners.
That doesn’t include the company’s existing Macksburg wind farm, operating since 2014 with 51 turbines.
On July 3, the county’s five-member Board of Adjustment voted 3-2 to grant MidAmerican a height variance and special-use permit for the Arbor Hill farm turbines.
As happened in the Fairbank case, however, a group of residents in Madison County banded together in anticipation of a legal challenge against the turbines.
The opposition residents, who formed the Madison County Coalition for Scenic Preservation, complain that county officials did their best to keep the project low-profile after MidAmerican announced its intentions last September.
But the first public meeting on MidAmerican’s application for a variance in April lasted more than five hours.
At a July meeting, 15 residents lined up to speak against the turbines and only one representative from MidAmerican spoke for it.
“They heard us, but they ignored us,” said Shelley Marsh, who with her husband, Dave, is a member of the coalition. “It was all about money.”
Several county officials, including adjustment board Chairman Randy Gambal, did not return phone calls regarding the project.
Madison County Attorney Matt Schultz, when contacted by Reader’s Watchdog, also declined, via Twitter, to comment.
“With the threat of pending litigation against the Madison County BOA action, it would be inappropriate for me to answer questions or comment at this time,” he tweeted.
In a public statement after the vote, Gambal downplayed concerns raised about haphazard development and the project’s potential effect on the landscape and residents.
“MidAmerican provided data and research from credible sources and independent studies,” Gambal wrote. “People against (the project) provided concerns and statements gathered from independent sources giving me only concern, but not documented proof.”
Two dissenting board members, Mary Terry and Mindy Nelson, said in written statements they could not legally vote “yes.”
Iowa Code 335 prohibits board members from voting for approval if the county’s requirements for granting a variance are not met.
Terry, a lawyer, wrote that approving the variance would “impair the general welfare” of those living near the turbines.
Ruining a landscape?
In Madison County, a variance is not supposed to be allowed if it substantially injures the “value and qualities” of an area, or if the landowner fails to establish an “unnecessary hardship” without it.
Property owners must prove the land in question “cannot yield a reasonable return from any use permitted by the regulations of the district in which the land is located.”
The ordinance goes on: “It is not sufficient merely to show that the value of the land has been depreciated by the regulations or that a variance would permit the owner to maintain a more profitable use.”
Dan Connolly, an Urbandale lawyer, plans to file a legal notice saying the board broke the law and overstepped its authority.
He argues that MidAmerican is not the landowner in regard to the county’s zoning ordinance. Regardless, he said, proponents failed to meet the county’s required elements for a variance.
Connolly said much has changed since Madison County drafted that zoning ordinance and its 18-year-old comprehensive plan.
The turbines would be erected in a section of the county that is part of the Des Mones metropolitan statistical area, and some in the region hope to lure new residents and workers as part of that growth.
But residents such as the Marshes say potential homebuyers already are inquiring about where the turbines will be located.
Do windmills affect home sales?
While no peer-reviewed research has found damage to residents’ health because of turbines, there has been conflicting research on whether wind farms lower property values.
In some other states, historical appraisals are being required by law to allow property owners to be compensated if the presence of a wind farm affects their value.
But Lou Nelsen, policy associate for the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, said there are so many economic benefits to wind energy that counties need to be careful about crafting ordinances that are too restrictive.
They also have a duty to listen to residents’ concerns, he said.
Nelsen’s organization tries to help counties strike a balance between affected landowners and the industry.
The most important thing is “informing all parties about the project and the technology so everyone feels like they are on even footing,” he said.
Dillon said most county ordinances are already written broadly, with a strong deference to farmers and their need to make a living in good times and bad.
“My example is always if the pork industry decided they needed to raise pigs in Egyptian-style pyramids, that would be allowed,” he said. “As long as you are in an ag district, you can do what you need to do.”
Dillon said local ordinances may become so unwieldy, state legislators could decide to craft a more comprehensive wind energy law to level the playing ground, as happened with hog confinements.
Though the federal production tax credit that helped jumpstart the wind industry is set to expire at the end of 2019, the industry is poised for continued growth.
Wind farms capable of producing 33,449 megawatts are under construction or in advanced development across the country, a 40 percent increase compared to the first quarter of 2017, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
But Dan Friedrichsen, a supervisor in O’Brien County, home to 318 turbines, said up-to-date local guidelines help in making decisions when wind farms are proposed.
His county developed a wind ordinance years ago, before an onslaught of wind development. The guidelines called for a setback of 1,500 feet at building sites, a distance supervisors thought was fair.
Friedrichsen said complaints residents raise about noise and flicker from the turbines are real. Some in his area also have complained of depreciating home values.
But O’Brien County is only just beginning to reap new property taxes on its wind farms, and the county has no serviceable debt. That means all the new revenue will be invested in local tax relief, he said.
And that has helped a lot, he said, as the agriculture economy has struggled.
“I understand exactly what Madison County is going through. It gets pretty heated sometimes,” he said. “But it’s a matter of ‘Do you want them or don’t you?’ For us, it is a substantial help. Everybody’s living with them and benefiting.”
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