Forty-five seconds of silence following a motion to impose a moratorium on commercial wind development perhaps resounded louder than two hours of an open mic before the Reno County Commission Tuesday morning.
Commissioner Ron Hirst’s motion to impose a six-month moratorium died for lack of a second. No other motion followed.
NextEra Energy is now free to file its application for a conditional use permit, which will go before the Reno County Planning Commission. The company previously indicated it planned to do so by mid-December.
The planning commission could propose additional restrictions or requirements for NextEra’s Pretty Prairie Wind Farm outside of existing zoning regulations, according to county commissioners and NextEra officials.
Any restrictions, however, must be set soon if NextEra is going to meet its timeline of getting the wind farm operable before the end of 2019 – a deadline required to qualify for federal tax breaks and meet energy delivery obligations.
The planning commission has a training session set for its December meeting, so it’s unlikely any discussion on the permit application – and any potential restrictions such as larger setbacks – will begin before January.
There is no statutory deadline for approving a conditional permit, but it generally takes about six weeks, said County Planner Mark Vonachen. There are statutory periods for publishing legal notices and conducting public hearings.
“Part of the process is seeing what other counties are doing,” Vonachen said. “There has to be some justification for (restrictions.) If you want a half-mile setback, there has to be justification or research to back that up. They (the planning commission) can go beyond what NextEra proposed if they see fit, and direct me to do the research.”
More than 100 people attended Tuesday’s meeting, filling the 35 chairs in the commission chambers at least 45 minutes before the meeting began. People standing also lined a back and sidewall in the chambers and spilled out into the open space outside the room where 70 more chairs were set up before a large screen monitor.
Before the meeting’s start, moratorium proponents, many wearing blue buttons that stated “Thank you for Keeping Reno Heavenly,” gathered in a circle to pray.
Many of those opposed to a moratorium wore stickers that read “I (heart symbol) Wind Energy,” though most people at the meeting wore no visible labels.
Less than an hour into the meeting, just like the last time the commission attempted to accommodate the overflow crowd, the link to the monitor via the county’s webpage froze. This time the commission continued hearing from the public, rather than halting the meeting to try to fix the technical issues.
After about 45 minutes, a reporter’s cell phone placed on the commission dais was used to live stream speakers via The News’ Facebook page, though a number of the speakers remained inaudible outside the chambers.
Speaker comments generally followed a few main lines. Those seeking a halt to development wanted issues related to potential health and property impacts further researched and restrictions placed on the development based on those findings.
Wind proponents focused on the economic impact – 250 construction and 15 to 20 permanent jobs created, along with annual payments by the Florida corporation to landowners, the county and schools – and the message sent to the rest of the industry if the county nixed NextEra’s project.
A NextEra official revealed Tuesday all landowners within the proposed footprint of the 88-acre project would receive some kind of payment, whether a turbine was on their land or not.
NextEra officials previously stated, and again reiterated on Tuesday, that the delay from a moratorium would kill the project.
Resident Kristy Horsch presented a petition to the commission calling for a moratorium she said was gathered over the weekend – and contained more than 700 signatures. Of those signing, 534, or about three-fourths, reside within Reno County. The rest were near the county lines in Sedgwick and Kingman counties, who would also be impacted by wind turbines.
She also handed the commission a separate 3-inch wide binder she said was an economic impact study by residents “that demonstrates a negative impact to the county with this project.”
Before making his motion to impose a moratorium, Hirst ran through some of his own research findings. Those suggested negative economic impact on property values would offset gains from the wind farms and questioned whether health impacts had been sufficiently studied.
“I’m not going to second your motion,” Commissioner Bob Bush said, noting he didn’t think any additional study would change perceptions.
“What we need to do is follow the government process that’s always been in place,” Bush said. “When the company comes to this commission and puts together an application, they’ll put their best foot forward and it will go the planning and zoning. They’ll look at our regulations and what’s best for the company, this community and the area where the company wants to go. They’ll approve it or not approve it, recommend it or don’t.”
“We should have done this in the first place, instead of trying to cut around this and find some way to stop this project,” he said. “It needs to go through the process of any business that wants to come here.”
Commissioner Dan Deming called the county’s current regulations on wind “woefully inadequate,” but he didn’t want to delay the NextEra project out of concern for killing the project.
“I believe in the economic and practical benefits from this proposal,” he said. “I believe it will be positive overall, in the long run, and accepted by the majority of Reno County. Our job is to do what’s best, at least what we think is best, overall for Reno County while protecting the interest of those most negatively impacted.”
Deming said he had his own proposal that would address some of the issues raised by residents and asked if the commission wanted to hear it.
Bush said no.
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