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Burleigh commission accepts responsibility on wind farm decision

A wind farm is being proposed for Burleigh and Emmons counties and, on Monday, the Burleigh County Commission agreed to assume Morton Township’s permitting authority for the project, to avoid a conflict of interest at the township level.

All three of the Morton Township supervisors – William Nicholson, Brian Dralle and Daymon Mills – are participating landowners in the project, so it would be a conflict of interest for the trio to decide whether or not to issue a special use permit for the wind farm.

“Because of the possible conflict of interest concerns, the only logical solution is to transfer the permitting authority of the project to the county, which has the resources, established procedures and unbiased position to be able to review this application,” Dralle said.

Chicago-based Pure New Energy USA is proposing to develop the 300-megawatt wind farm, known as Altenbruch II.

“The farmland out there isn’t the best. It’s more marginal. I farmed it a couple of years, couldn’t do it,” said Scott Lang, who lives in Burleigh’s Telfer Township, where the wind farm is also proposed. “The best crop I see is the wind turbines, actually.”

Without the transfer of permitting authority, the project would likely be canceled, according to Courtney Timmons, a PNE representative.

“It’s a very clear conflict of interest from a monetary standpoint. They (Morton Township supervisors) will stand to make a lot of money from all of the turbines in the project, not just the turbines on their own property. That is part of the reason why there is such a conflict of interest here,” he said.

“Without this transfer, the project for Morton Township would have no clear path forward to obtain its permit. It would, essentially, be in a situation where it would require a permit that its government is not able to give it,” he said. “Likely, the project could be canceled as a result of this.”

About 50 landowners attended Monday’s Burleigh County Commission meeting. Though it wasn’t a public hearing, the commission allowed citizens to weigh in on the matter.

“What we’re all here for today is because we are at a deadlock,” said Debra Young, who stated a tower may be erected on her property. “We have people for and we have people against, and we have very strong feelings. It’s broken up friendships. It’s broken up everything. And we would like a decision.”

Commissioner Kathleen Jones, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said she feels the issue needs to be resolved by the township.

“This, to me, appears to be a neighborhood squabble,” she said. “That board could be recalled and Morton Township could re-elect a nonbiased board. I don’t feel this belongs at the county commission. I think it needs to be settled in Morton Township, not at the county commission table.”

Timmons said because “a lot” of the township residents are participating in the project, it would be difficult to find a group of people who would be unbiased.

Chairman Jim Peluso said he feels the Burleigh County Commission is the “best option” when it comes to making a decision on the special use permit for the wind farm.

“I agree, to a point, that it is a local issue, because half these people in this audience are going to hate us and half of them are going to love us, no matter what we decide. And that’s not fair,” he said. “But … we put our big boy pants on and we are the county commission. We’re probably the best option.

“We’re not accepting this project if we accept this responsibility. It would give us more time to ask 110 questions that we have before this project is ever approved,” he said.

By accepting the responsibility, the county is now susceptible to litigation in relation to the project, according to Assistant Burleigh County State’s Attorney Conor Kennelly.

“By accepting this responsibility, it does open the county, now, to liability if it’s accepted,” he said. “I think there’s a strong likelihood, given the contention of it all, that it’ll end up in court.”

Telfer Township and Emmons County must also go through a permitting process. The Public Service Commission requires local approval before it will approve the wind farm, according to Ray Ziegler, Burleigh County’s building official.

The special use permit application for the wind farm will be reviewed by the Burleigh County Planning and Zoning Board, and public hearings will be held.

The county commission will make the decision on whether or not to allow the wind farm in Morton Township.