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Planners say no to latest round of wind turbine restrictions pitched by county residents

People who live near a potential wind farm in Lancaster County got a consolation prize from the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission on Wednesday.

Commissioners voted 7-1 to endorse some minor changes to rules proposed by the neighbors and their attorneys, but they said no to more substantive ones.

The board did endorse requiring any wind farm developer to do post-construction testing to ensure turbines meet noise standards, and it also approved some minor changes to zoning language meant to clarify intent.

But it said no to the residents’ main proposal: to require a 1-mile setback from any wind turbine to the property line of a nonparticipating property.

Nonparticipating properties are those where the owner chooses not to accept a payment from the developer, either to host a turbine on the land or to act as a buffer to meet setback requirements.

Three years ago, the county set minimum setbacks for wind turbines of 1,000 feet to a property line, with potentially longer distances depending on the height of the turbines. It also set noise limits of 40 decibels in the daytime and 37 decibels at night.

Last month, the County Board voted to adjust those noise limits to allow participating properties to have limits up to 50 decibels both day and night.

During public hearings on that change, it was revealed that a study done by NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based company that is considering building a wind farm with up to 50 turbines in southern Lancaster and northern Gage counties, showed that turbines would have to be about a mile away from a house to meet the nonparticipating property decibel level.

Neighbors structured their proposal off of that distance but took it a step further by making it a mile from a property line.

“We’re taking this information from studies that were paid for by NextEra,” said Mark Hunzeker, one of the attorneys for the neighbors.

He and another attorney, Anne Post, argued that making the property line the boundary rather than a building was necessary to ensure nonparticipating properties were not devalued.

Hunzeker also argued that a distance setback would be cheaper and easier to enforce than one based on sound.

Yvonne Mihulka-Poole, who lives in the area, said the standard was a good measuring stick, because if turbines could not be sited within a mile of nonparticipating properties, “it’s proof that this is not a place for industrial wind power.”

Mike Woodward, another area resident, said he’s worked with sound testing and results can be manipulated.

The 1-mile buffer, he argued, “is the only consistent guarantee on noise for us as nonparticipating properties.”

Planning staff, however, did not support the 1-mile setback, saying no other surrounding county has regulations even close to that.

“The proposed change to setbacks and measuring noise levels at a property line instead of a dwelling are excessive and go beyond protecting property owners,” Planner Tom Cajka wrote in his report on the proposal.

David Levy, an attorney for NextEra, said the company supported the Planning Department’s recommendations, including the requirement for post-construction noise testing, even though neighbors were getting “a second bite at the apple” by proposing changes that would essentially nullify the vote the County Board took three weeks ago.

The only commissioner to vote against the stricter proposal was Maja Harris.

Harris did not vote no because she endorsed the 1-mile setback. Instead, she said the issue of regulating wind turbines had been through an extensive public process and she felt no further changes were necessary.

“I am fine with my original votes,” she said.

The proposal passed by the Planning Commission will go on to the County Board, which will have the final say.