As it moves toward a decision whether to issue a moratorium or try to control the development of a proposed wind farm in Reno County through a contract, the Reno County Commission agreed Tuesday to quiz Kingman and Pratt county officials about their experiences.
Residents seeking a year-long moratorium, meanwhile, appeared before the commission for a fifth consecutive week, with nearly a dozen speakers offering additional arguments in their opposition to the development of the 220-megawatt Pretty Prairie Wind Farm by NextEra Energy in southeastern Reno County.
A chamber official, there for another reason, was the lone voice from the audience in favor of the development.
Reno County Counselor Joe O’Sullivan apparently advised the commission during a previous executive session against meeting with commissioners from Pratt and Kingman counties.
He noted during Tuesday’s discussion that it is really the purview of the Reno County Planning Commission, which is supposed to be developing a new countywide overlay zone to control commercial renewable energy projects, to do that research.
The commission overruled those objections, however, and agreed to meet with Kingman County Commissioners 10:30 a.m. Monday in Kingman, during that board’s regular meeting, and with a Pratt County Commissioner and the city planning director 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in Hutchinson.
While both are public meetings, since they involve a quorum of the commission, the commissioners made it clear the public would not be allowed to participate in the discussion. Commissioner Bob Bush suggested if people have specific questions, they can submit them to the county commission in an email.
The commission then met again in executive session with O’Sullivan at the tail end of Tuesday’s meeting for privileged legal matters, which Commissioner Dan Deming said was continued discussion on the wind contract.
Deming had proposed the meetings with officials from the other counties.
“I’d like to have that meeting to learn from their experience before we make this important decision,” Deming said. “I fail to see how it would be harmful.”
“What’s the downside of such a meeting?” Commissioner Bob Bush asked O’Sullivan.
The county counselor said any written agreement between the county and NextEra would be a contract binding NextEra to specific requirements for development, but it would not be a formal development agreement, which would come into play once the company seeks conditional use permits to build the 80-plus wind towers.
“That’s when it would be appropriate,” he said of the other meetings. “I’m trying to make clear this is not what we’re talking about with this agreement. This is a very focused, limited agreement applying zoning to the unzoned areas of the county when dealing with setbacks and other regulations.”
“I never said it was not a worthwhile inquiry,” O’Sullivan said. “What I said was none of this becomes relevant until there is an application for a conditional use permit. That initiates a process through planning and zoning by state law. Planning and zoning should conduct the public hearings, gather the information and make a recommendation to you.”
“I do not want this board in any discussion to indicate a pre-disposition (how they will vote) if this ultimately comes before you,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a concern that will happen and jeopardize the legal effect of the decisions made. I’m trying to be cautious. I’m in no way trying to stifle gathering information.”
Commission Bob Bush said he supported Deming’s proposal to hear from the neighboring counties that have experience with NextEra.
“I’d don’t know that we’ve gotten a lot of information,” Bush said. “We’ve gotten a lot of perspective, a lot of opinion; we’ve heard from a lot of people who had emotional facts about how they feel about this, which are very valuable. But in terms of data, where other communities bring in direct objective experiences about this and how things went, I’d like to have that data and invite them to join us.”
Dec. 4 decision?
Commission Chairman Ron Hirst noted that the planning board – which also had a near-standing room crowd at its meeting last Thursday – was waiting on continued direction from the county commission.
That board voted 5-2 to last week to recommend a 6-month moratorium on wind development – if a contract agreement with the county can’t be reached.
Most of the public speakers at both county commission and planning commission meetings have requested a 12-month moratorium.
“It seems to me we need lots of information,” Hirst said, suggesting the county and planning commissions should simultaneously be doing research.
The County Commission previously indicated it would vote at its Dec. 4 meeting on the moratorium question.
O’Sullivan said Tuesday, however, that “since last week the ideas what should be in there have expanded considerably,” and he wasn’t sure, given its complexity, that an agreement could be drafted by Dec. 4.
“I’m not sure a contract would do much now,” Hirst said. “I’m tending toward establishing a time we can let the planning and zoning commission do their job in coordination with us.”
Hirst also indicated he’d prefer at least a 6-month, rather than a 3- or 4-month moratorium as previously suggested.
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