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Fate of Seneca County wind farm project still in question after hearing

TIFFIN – An all-day courtroom hearing ended with a national Utah-based wind developer and 30 area leaseholders still unsure if the company will be allowed on their land to keep its proposed Seneca Wind project moving forward.

The case is being heard in Seneca County Common Pleas Court, where a second hearing this month drew a standing room only crowd on Friday.

Retired Wood County Common Pleas Judge Robert Pollex, assigned by the Ohio Supreme Court to preside over the case, told attorneys after the final witness testified that he would give them until 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to submit their final briefs. The judge is being asked by sPower to issue an order granting immediate access to 31 tracts of land in which a different would-be developer negotiated leases from the 30 property owners more than a decade ago.

The landowners now refuse to grant access, claiming the leases expired after 10 years and did not automatically renew. The company claims the opposite.

Seneca Wind is a massive, 212-megawatt project proposed by an sPower subsidiary, Seneca Wind LLC, that would rank among Ohio’s largest wind farms if the Ohio Power Siting Board grants approval this summer.

The company said it is under a tight deadline to complete remaining surveying work in order to keep the project on schedule, driven largely by a need to clear-cut trees before a March 31 deadline established by state and federal wildlife authorities under a law aimed at protecting endangered bats.

The work will take about a month to do.

The project calls for 77 turbines to be erected across 25,000 acres of privately leased land in Seneca County. It carries an estimated $56 million impact through combined lease payments to property owners and payments in lieu of taxes to local communities.

The process hit a snag recently, though, when the 30 property owners who had signed over rights to their land more than a decade ago began resisting sPower’s attempts to come onto their property.

Christopher Carry, of Republic, Ohio, testified that he was not made aware sPower believed the leases automatically renewed even after hosting a company official last August on property passed down to him by his parents. He said he called sPower because he was about to build a home near the front of the property and he wanted to make sure no turbine “would be in my front yard.”

“At this point, the lease has expired. I do not intend to partake in it and do not want anyone on my property,” Mr. Carry said.

Danette Martin, of Attica, Ohio, said she was not aware her signature was on a lease and “would like to do my part to hold up sPower in any part of Seneca Wind” because she opposes the project.

Brad Oakleaf, who lives on rural property outside of Tiffin, said sPower is trying to gain access to property he and his father have farmed, and that he finds the company’s demands “very upsetting.”

David Swartzmiller, of Attica, said he received lease payments from a different vendor in 2014, 2015, and 2016, but nothing in 2017 – the year sPower bought the leases.

He said he considers the lease expired once payments ceased, and maintained he has never received correspondence from sPower.

By far the most extensive testimony was that delivered by Peter Pawlowski, sPower vice president of wind, who spent nearly 3.5 hours on the stand, most of it under cross-examination by Mr. Stock.

“The project cannot be finalized without the surveys,” Mr. Pawlowski testified, a reference to surveying work that still needs to be done.

Landowners signed leases more than a decade ago, and sPower acquired rights to them in 2017.

Judge Pollex took testimony inside a courtroom that has a maximum occupancy of 110 people. More than 80 spectators, not including lawyers, witnesses, court employees, and the media, were there.

Mr. Stock told the judge that his clients maintain the leases expired after 10 years, and that sPower now is “seeking extraordinary relief to go on each and every one of these properties.”

Kara Herrnstein, of Columbus, an attorney representing the developer, said the leases automatically renewed.

“Seneca Wind has the right and the need for immediate access to defendants’ property,” Ms. Herrnstein told the judge.

Surveying would be delayed until at least Nov. 1, but probably even later than that because of fall harvest, if the tree-clearing and surveying can’t be done immediately, Mr. Pawlowski said.

sPower is trying to get the work done to stay on schedule with upcoming Ohio Power Siting Board hearings in late April and early May.

Mr. Stock accused the wind developer of manufacturing a crisis.

“They’re not novices. They’re big boys,” he said, referring to sPower. “They knew before they purchased these leases they were coming to expire.”

The company’s website shows it has developed numerous wind and solar projects across the country, especially in California and the Northeast.