The Reno County Planning Commission spent more than 45 minutes recently discussing how to approach regulating commercial wind farms in the county but ended up forwarding no recommendations to the Reno County Commission.
Instead, the board will wait for the commission to give it direction if it wishes to pursue the issue.
The idea of countywide zoning that would apply only to commercial wind and solar was suggested a few months ago when the county commission received a preliminary look at a Comprehensive Plan that the planning board was drafting.
The planning commission, incidentally, agreed to set a public hearing on the Comprehensive Plan for 5 p.m., Oct. 18, which is the board’s next regular meeting.
During that meeting, the board will also conduct a public hearing on the placement of a meteorological tower in the county. One had previously been in place at the same site to measure winds, but it apparently had not received necessary permits.
While zoning for wind developments would be a relatively simple thing to create, consultant Russ Ewy, of Baughman and Co. in Wichita, who is helping develop the county’s comprehensive plan, told the planning commission, requirements for public notices and public hearings prior to adoption would push the process out, “at a minimum, three months.”
Since NextEra Energy is in the midst of developing a wind farm within the county, Ewy suggested if the county wants to pursue the regulation, the first step would be imposing a one-year moratorium on new developments in the county.
Based, however, on how far NextEra is presumed to be on developing its wind farm, that idea drew opposition from at least one planning commission members.
Only about the eastern third of the county is currently zoned. That means commercial wind turbines can go up through most of the county without having to meet any public notification or property setback requirements.
The process to impose regulation, Ewy said, would require zoning the entire county, perhaps as an “agricultural protection zone,” but then stipulating which specific industries would be regulated.
He suggested, besides wind and solar, it might include confined animal feeding operations and salvage yards.
“Pick out the most onerous,” he said.
“You have to say the words,” Ewy said, referring to countywide zoning. “But what’s not zoned in the protection or overlay district would stay the same.”
“Everything you do now in an unzoned area you could do in the future except commercial energy conversion, stockyard or feedlots, junkyards or hazardous waste disposal,” depending on what the zoning includes, he said.
The zoning would not impose building codes or other such regulations on development, but would require the issuance of conditional use permits by the county to allow the regulated developments.
It could include setbacks distances for turbines from buildings or property lines, as well as requirements that landowners within a certain distance of a proposed turbine receive notification in order to object or support the location. Most importantly, Ewy said, it could include road maintenance agreements.
“At the very least you need road maintenance agreements,” he said.
Other places in the state have created similar overlay districts, such as McConnell Air Force Base, so Reno County would not be inventing something, Ewy said.
“State statutes allow you to create zoning regulations of whatever flavor you want,” he said. “They allow planned unit developments, overlay districts, specific zoning districts.”
A big question, said County Planner Mark Vonachen, is what the county hopes to gain with the regulations.
“Do you just want to notify people that a wind farm is coming, so those in the unzoned area had the opportunity to come to a public hearing and voice their concerns?” he said. “You can do that anyway with a text amendment in a resolution.”
Commissioner Mark Richardson, a proponent of wind energy, suggested the county could use the threat of a moratorium and zoning to bring developers to the table, to agree to requirements countywide without having actually to impose them.
That would allow the development now in process to continue while giving those in unzoned portions of the county some leverage.
“A moratorium does not seem right at this late date, especially since the county commission has not acted,” Richardson said. “But the county can hold them over a barrel, say do it all or nothing.”
Richardson also suggested perhaps imposing a shorter term moratorium, of 3 months, with the possibility of a 2- or 3-month extension.
Vonachen said he objected to that, as “a slippery slope.”
Planning Commission Chair Lisa French asked Vonachen whether there is a public push for the zoning.
“I don’t know if it’s five people or 50 with angst,” about the possibility of turbines near their property, Vonachen said.
Commissioner Ken Jorns asked if it was legal for the county to impose regulations on property, requiring obtaining a conditional use permit where one wasn’t needed before, when a company may have already signed leases for development in unzoned areas.
“Sure,” Ewy replied. But that’s also why he’s recommending a countywide moratorium.
“They’re a big company,” he said. “They don’t care about local zoning jurisdiction. They will buy you (property owners) off. No one wants a landfill next to them, but everyone like $100,000 in their pocket. These guys are going to steamroll. If they want a wind farm in Reno County, there will be a wind farm in Reno County. This is major league.”
French then suggested the board take its direction from County Administrator Gary Meagher or the county commission and not pursue a change unless so directed.
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