GALESBURG – Flying ranks next to breathing in Joe Fisher’s life, though worry over losing that ability overwhelms him now.
Growing up, Fisher built model airplanes. His father enlisted in the Navy in 1939 and became an airplane mechanic – a plane captain.
“I had his books. I used to study those books and when I was in the eighth grade, in shop class, we got to do a project we chose,” Fisher said. “There was a practical in this book, so I built a wing section for my shop class project. My instructor said, ‘I’ve never had anybody do that before.’”
As a young man in the Air Force, Fisher collected parts where he could find them with the dream of building his own plane. When he got out of the military in 1967, he used his 1959 Rambler and a trailer to haul a fuselage home to Nebraska. Strapped to the top of the car were the plane’s wings. The parts all went in his parents’ garage until they were assembled. In 1968, he flew his homemade plane for first time. While he built his plane, he also used the GI bill to earn a commercial pilot license, instrument and flight instructor ratings.
This week, Fisher stood next to his wife, Diann, their yellow Piper J-3 Cub parked beside them in the front yard. Now 73, Fisher said, “I took her on our first date in that. … It’s cramped and it’s noisy, so it’s not as good as driving. It’s just the pure joy I get from flying. It’s all I ever wanted to do since I was a little kid.”
Tears welled in his eyes and his voice cracked. He worked to regain his composure as he recalled how he put half his pay into savings bonds while in the Air Force, so when they were married June 2, 1972, they paid $6,500 cash for their first home in Crete, Nebraska, a fixer-upper that wasn’t habitable. They worked on the house, and there they had their children and began life together.
About seven years later a job led the Fishers to Missouri. He dreamed of opening an airplane recovering shop and after traveling through Southeast Kansas, they began looking for property here. In 1987, they bought 30 acres off of Kansas 47 in rural Galesburg.
While living in Missouri, Fisher drove to Galesburg when he could and built a workshop/hangar on the land and a small airstrip, starting in 1989. Once the shop was complete, he took off from work for a year and half to build their home from the ground up. Diann helped every other weekend when she was off work. The home was livable by 1993.
They were thrilled. The property was close enough to hospitals for Diann to find work in nursing and he could operate his business doing fabric aircraft recovering and restoration and satisfy his passion for flying. This is where they planned to settle permanently and they could hop in the plane when they wanted, taxi to the runway beside their home and soar into the blue sky, above the crops and cattle.
The Fishers say Apex Clean Energy’s plan is blowing up a storm that would block his airstrip with 500- to 600-foot-tall wind turbines near the north and south ends of his property, by leasing adjacent pastureland from other landowners. The turbines would eliminate his ability to use his airstrip.
Fisher said he doesn’t believe it is fair that Apex can deprive him of the ability to enjoy his land. He adds that the company’s turbine placement in direct alignment with his airstrip interferes with his land use rights.
Apex officials know the Fishers have an airstrip, as they said the company called and left a message asking to lease their land to run a collection line under their airstrip.
Neighboring property owners do not live on the land that will be leased. One lives in Chanute, another in Wichita, and there is no one to complain on Beachner Brothers’ land except the cows grazing there.
Faced with the same problem in Oklahoma, private use airstrip owners registered their runways with the Federal Aviation Administration, following Oklahoma’s Senate Bill 808 that went into effect in 2016 and ordered wind turbines sited at least 1.5 nautical miles from schools, airports and hospitals.
Rural landowners with private air strips are not required to register them with the FAA, but concerns of encroachment by the turbines resulted in dozens of filings, according to news accounts. Wind industry representatives responded by calling the airports “shamports,” saying they only filed to block turbines, NewsOK’s Paul Monies reported.
Fisher said his airstrip is no sham, given its long existence, and he has no desire to register with the FAA, granting them access to his land and hangar, but the alternative of no longer being able to use his runway to fly is a heart-wrenching consideration.
Not only would the turbines affect Fisher, but they also would impact farmers.
In January 2014, the University of Kansas reported wakes from wind turbines increase the crosswind component and roll hazard for small aircraft (“Wind Farm Turbulence Impacts on General Aviation Airports in Kansas”). Another report released in January speaks to the impact of turbines’ rotating blades creating turbulence, with vortices sustaining “strength and distance for several miles before dissipating.” (“Classification of Wind Farm Turbulence and Its Effects on General Aviation Aircraft and Airports”).
The proximity of proposed Apex wind turbines to farmers’ fields could impact farmers’ ability to use crop dusters. Fisher said he knows several farmers in the area crop dust, as he has watched the pilots at work, but no one is speaking to the issue. Air ambulance providers would also be impacted if they needed to enter the air space. The only private airport in Galesburg registered with the FAA is White Farms managed by Britton J. White. A required setback would protect the private airstrip, located about a mile and a half east of the city.
While the Neosho County Commission is listening to people on both sides of the Neosho Ridge Wind Energy Project, a few opponents say they have seen no indication that the commission or Apex is bringing in professionals to determine the impacts of siting a project in Neosho County.
In Kansas, local governments may regulate the siting of wind facilities and the Kansas Energy Council produced a handbook for governments that includes regulations, considerations and examples. The county may consider not just economic impacts, but agriculture impacts and impacts on the local environment, including natural and biological resources, such as migratory birds traveling through to Big Hill Lake in rural Cherryvale or Neosho Wildlife Area at St. Paul. A visual impact assessment, land use assessment, as well as socioeconomic, public service and infrastructure affects are all matters to be considered, in addition to a decommissioning and reclamation plan, according to the handbook.
In Zimmerman v. Board of County Commissioners, 218 P.3d 400 (Kan. 2009), the Kansas Supreme Court upheld a ban on wind farms, noting that commercial wind farms have a negative impact on property values and agricultural and nature-based tourism would also suffer.
Though not a determination from a Kansas court, in Burch, et al., v. Nedpower Mount Storm, LLC, and Shell Windenergy, Inc., 220 W.Va. 443, 647 S.E.2d 879 (2007), the court ruled that a proposed 200-turbine wind farm in close proximity to residential property could constitute a nuisance. The homeowners lived within a two-mile radius from where the turbines were to be erected, and they sought a permanent injunction against the construction and operation of the wind farm.
Local landowners have not brought up the possibility of litigation. They have been attempting to work with the county commissioners and Apex to move the turbines away from housing by changing the setbacks. Landowners heard at a commission meeting Wednesday that a mile setback from homes was not feasible. The county requested Apex map a half-mile setback from property lines, equating to 2,640 feet. The company first proposed 1,425-foot setbacks from the foundation or center of a home.
“I can’t imagine them putting 110, 120, 130 of those between here and Parsons. That’s so many of them,” Diann said. “I can’t imagine all those being placed in between the houses as big as they are.”
Residents who would live among the turbines or nearby are concerned about the effects, including reduced property values and the visual effect on the Southeast Kansas landscape. While the greater setbacks may appease a few people, it does nothing for Fisher in keeping the wind turbines from blocking his ability to take off and land his airplane on his property. He does not know how many days, months or years he has left to be able to fly his small Cub, but he said as a taxpaying citizen it should be his right to do so, and others’ property rights should not infringe on his, impairing his ability to enjoy his own land.
Fisher broke down again, and wiped tears from his cheeks. He told about this past Fourth of July he gave airplane rides to his grandchildren and about the joy it brought them both.
“What’s good for me is supposedly good for (Apex). We’re at the top of a hill, and it’s easier to take off and land at the top of a hill than it is in a valley. You get more wind, and that’s what they are wanting,” Fisher said, noting his runway has been in place for three decades before Apex showed interest in the hill.
“We enjoy being out here in the peace and quiet basically. If this happens, you’re basically not in the country anymore,” Diann said, talking about the sight and sound of the turbines.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Fisher said. “We’re here and happily going along and someone comes along and tries to destroy it.”