TIFFIN – Look almost anywhere across the United States and the fight against wind turbines comes down to a simple mathematical formula that involves people.
That’s the assessment of Jim Feasel, a fierce opponent of wind power and a resident of Seneca County’s Eden Township.
Sure, there’s always anger and fury amid concerns about wind turbines’ impact on birds, bats, and other wildlife – not to mention human health concerns about shadow-flicker and vibrations. But Mr. Feasel believes many Americans are overthinking the reasons behind such conflicts – including a conflict that has reached a fever pitch in Seneca County.
It’s all about the number of people per square mile. More people equals more conflict, Mr. Feasel said.
Seneca County has about 103 people per square mile, more than many parts of the country where the wind industry prospers and slightly more than the average square mile in the United States, according to the U.S. Census. Van Wert County, which hosts three-quarters of Ohio’s largest wind farm, the 152-turbine Blue Creek Wind Farm, has 72 people per square mile. Paulding County, home to the other quarter of that $600 million project, has less than half the density of Seneca County, with 49 people per square mile.
Mr. Feasel said he and other critics are trying to create a “tsunami of public relations” to sway public opinion against the wind industry. Putting a halt on construction is a tall order at the township level, though, when farmers find themselves pitted against one another based on who’s getting lease payments from wind turbine projects and who’s not.
“It’s a topic you don’t bring up in a room of friends,” Mr. Feasel said. “All of the problems go away when you put [turbines] in areas where there aren’t people.”
He and Deb Hay of Thompson Township are among many residents behind a grass-roots group called the Seneca Anti-Wind Union. The group has drawn crowds in excess of 500 people to rallies twice this year, including earlier this month, and takes battles to individual township meetings on a smaller scale.
Ms. Hay said she isn’t happy that wind power is getting bigger across the region as Ohio’s two nuclear plants, FirstEnergy Solutions’ Davis-Besse and Perry plants, appear to have their days numbered.
“I’m a beekeeper,” Ms. Hay said. “I don’t want emissions. But doing this to replace Davis-Besse makes no sense.”
Five Seneca County townships comprise the footprint for one of the projects at the center of the Seneca County dispute: Utah-based sPower’s proposed 85-turbine Seneca Wind farm, which the Ohio Power and Siting Board is expected to decide on in early 2019. The project is estimated to cost between $275 and $300 million and is expected to generate $56 million in tax revenue for schools and other local government bodies.
sPower in a news release Thursday said the company’s application to the board was complete and under review.
Charlottesville, Va.-based Apex Clean Energy’s $92 million Republic Wind project calls for 58 turbines, each about 591 feet tall, spread across different rural Seneca County townships, according to Ohio Siting Board records.
Natasha Montague, Apex spokesman, said the company will probably stick “within that same range” of machines and height. But she said it is reconsidering its layout in hopes of finding one more conductive to residents and “to have more options.”
As if there weren’t enough controversy now, Republic also has two even-bigger projects in the early stages of planning in that part of northwest Ohio: its proposed Emerson Creek Wind project, which calls for 65 to 85 turbines in Erie and Huron counties, and its proposed Honey Creek Wind project, which calls for about 80 turbines in Seneca and Crawford counties.
Each of those are to have the capacity to generate up to 300 megawatts, equivalent to what the Blue Creek Wind Farm – currently Ohio’s largest – has had since it went online in 2012. One megawatt provides enough electricity to power 1,000 homes.
“There’s certainly a lot of natural resource there,” Ms. Montague said. “It plugs into the grid. It makes a lot of sense to build projects in that area. I don’t see developers leaving anytime soon.”
Rural northwest Ohio is considered one of the state’s best regions for wind farm development. Roughly the Erie-Hardin-Seneca-Sandusky area and west out to the Indiana state line is most suitable to developers now. They’re relatively low-populated areas – and therefore home to less concentrated political resistance – and winds there are stronger at the higher elevation of turbine blades.
Still, in Seneca County emotions are flying high, with several residents saying the projects have torn apart extended families and driven a wedge between longstanding friendships with neighbors.
“I’m concerned about this bitterness,” Greg Smith, a Bloom Township resident and Seneca Anti-Wind Union leader, said. “When you talk about the hard feelings and the divide it has created, it’s big time.”
Seneca County Commissioner Shayne Thomas agreed, though added one person’s opposition to turbines shouldn’t stop another’s ability to make money off them from lease payments.
“I’ve had a number of people in my office with tears in their eyes worried about their home value and their quality of life,” Mr. Thomas said. “But their neighbor owns the land [next to them] and it’s a legal act in the state of Ohio. There’s the issue. It’s a property rights issue.”
Mr. Thomas has been a target of critics for several reasons, including testimony he delivered to the Ohio Senate Finance Committee on June 7, 2017, in which he sought a repeal of the setback rules the legislature passed four years ago. Those rules require 1,225 feet seperate the tip of a turbine from the nearest property.
Several developers have said those rules are too restrictive, and critics are incensed that Mr. Thomas told the Senate panel 16 months ago that most Seneca County property owners were in favor of softer setback requirements when many of them hadn’t even heard of the Republic Wind project back then.
Although developers began courting property owners as far back as a decade ago, details weren’t unveiled to the public until Republic Wind held an open house in Green Springs, Ohio, last December.
Mr. Thomas defended his testimony by pointing to inevitable scuttlebutt once negotiations for lease payments began.
“The point is nobody engaged. The information was there. If you’re living in a cave, I don’t know what to tell you,” Mr. Thomas said.
Another thing that draws ire from critics is Mr. Thomas’ steadfast refusal to help townships be represented affordably in the Ohio Power Siting Board’s review process.
Mr. Thomas said he and Commissioner Holly Stacy, the other person on the three-member county board who favors the wind projects, have hired a former Apex attorney, Michael Settineri, to represent the county commission for the OPSB proceedings at a rate of $480 an hour. Many believe the county will end up paying more than $100,000 for his expertise.
“Commissioners are using our taxpayer dollars to hire a high-priced attorney to fight us,” Mr. Smith said.
Seneca County Prosecutor Derek W. DeVine, who normally would represent the commission, has offered to represent the townships but only if there is unanimous consent between them and county commissioners. The lone holdout is Mr. Thomas, who said he won’t grant consent because he believes that would jeopardize his attorney-client privilege with Mr. DeVine.
“I think the reality of it is some of these [wind turbines] are going to be built,” Mr. Thomas said. “For some people, it’s not going to be as bad as they think.”
But there are few apples-to-apples comparisons for residents to brace for that change.
sPower’s Seneca Wind project calls for machines that are 652 feet up into the air at the apex of their blades, which would make them among the tallest structures in northwest Ohio. Only a few turbines in Texas are that tall.
Ten trustees spread across Eden, Scipio, Adams, Thompson, and Bloom townships have leased out their property to developers in exchange for cash, according to records compiled by Seneca Wind Anti-Union.
Some have remained mum or abstained from voting, while others have been vocal about their support.
“The township trustees do not have authority over this project,” Dan Williamson, sPower spokesman, said while acknowledging some of them “have chosen to have a voice.”
State law, though, requires any project greater than 5 megawatts – Seneca Wind and Republic Wind are each 200 mw – to be under the jurisdiction of the Ohio Power Siting Board.
“Decisions are based on land location, not who the owner is,” Dan Williamson, sPower spokesman, said. “There’s not a lot of mystery here. The township trustees know each other.”
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