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County won’t issue moratorium on wind project; Orr decides against resigning

ERIE – A motion for a moratorium against a proposed wind farm in Neosho County failed with all three county commissioners present at a special meeting Thursday evening.

Commissioners also voted to change their meetings to Thursday evenings from Friday mornings when a commissioner decided against resigning.

The discussion on the proposed Neosho Ridge wind project filled the courtroom at the Neosho County courthouse to capacity, but was less dramatic than previous commission meetings. A representative of Apex Clean Energy, developers of the project, had 30 minutes to make a presentation, then a representative of non-participating landowners had 30 minutes to present the opponents’ concerns. The commission then met in executive session with an attorney for an hour before considering the moratorium.

Commissioner Paul Westhoff, whose district covers the area of the proposed project, proposed a six-month moratorium, but the motion died without a second. Commissioner David Bideau said he was opposed because a moratorium equates to a ban, and Commissioner Jennifer Orr said she opposed it due to zoning laws.

“We would be getting into a whole nest,” she said.

Westhoff said he received 40 to 50 calls on the issue and he is opposed to countywide zoning. He said he wanted a temporary moratorium to take a break.

“The brakes are on,” Apex representative Jade Scheele said.

The only interruptions in the presentations were when a member of the audience challenged Scheele to make a monetary guarantee that property values would not decrease, and when an audience member asked if Lori Whitworth, speaking for the opponents, had reached her allotted 30 minutes.

When the project began two years ago, developers said it would involve 100 to 130 windmills on 41,000 acres in the southwest area of Neosho County. At Thursday’s meeting, Scheele said that current plans are for 139 wind turbines and said the change was part of the natural evolution of project plans.

Outside of the meeting. Scheele also said there are about 43,000 acres under lease. The commission previously asked Apex to lease additional land to spread out the space for the turbines.

Scheele also said outside of the meeting that Apex is not definitively committed to a windmill manufacturer, but is in discussion with Vestas for an agreement.

In her presentation, Scheele said Apex has offered setbacks of 1,000 feet from non-participating property and 1,640 feet from non-participating homes. She said Apex is offering to pay $2,000 per megawatt on the 300 megawatt project in lieu of taxes, which would be exempt for 10 years under federal and state law.

She said the company’s study of 37 Kansas counties showed property values countywide remained steady or increased with wind farms.

She said they are studying values closer to the wind farms, and that information will be available at an informational meeting Jan. 24.

Scheele said a phone survey of 100 people indicated support for the project, but meetings have been unpleasant for supporters because of the opposition.

She denied rumors that the project would be expanded later or that the tax exemption would be extended. Scheele also denied rumors that the project would include security cameras, and said construction would not start until Apex has decommissioning, payment in lieu of taxes and road use agreements with the county.

She said windmill locations in a filing to the Federal Aviation Administration are not final.

Whitworth challenged the idea that opponents are threatening, and said she prefers the term “concerned citizen” to opponent.

She said there is no way to store wind energy and wind does not flow all the time, so it is not a long-term energy alternative. She said wind energy would require 12 percent of the nation’s land, or twice the size of California, to provide sufficient electricity.

Whitworth cited the number of homes in the project’s footprint.

“This footprint is in a densely-populated area,” she said.

She cited state and international setbacks, including a one-mile requirement in Germany, and said blades can throw ice up to 1,968 feet and pieces of blades up to 3,900 feet.

“Even if it is a minimal occurrence, it still is an occurrence,” Whitworth said.

She also said Ducks Unlimited recommends that wind turbines are set six miles from wetlands. Whitworth proposed a 2,000-foot setback from property lines and 4,000 feet from residences.

Apex representatives did not attend commission meetings during December, when commissioners heard from opponents.

Westhoff said Thursday’s meeting “actually brought you guys to the table to give us some darn numbers.”

Before adjourning, Westhoff proposed holding off on public commentary about the issue until Apex provided additional information. Bideau seconded the motion and all three voted in favor.

Orr, who missed county commission meetings during December, apologized for her absence and said she does not want to resign.

Orr reportedly told County Counselor Seth Jones she would resign, but had not properly submitted written notice to the State and the county clerk. Friday morning, officials said they understood Orr withdrew her plans.

Commissioners voted Thursday evening to move their meetings to 6 pm on Thursdays to avoid job scheduling conflicts. The commission met as usual Friday morning and will begin its new schedule this upcoming Thursday.