The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday voted to delay approval of a three-part development agreement for the planned construction of the Freeborn Wind Farm in southeastern Freeborn County.
Part of the agreement covers liability for any possible damage to county infrastructure and a road use fee. The agreement does not include project approval. The Public Utilities Commission approved site and route permits in September.
Delaying the vote on the agreement passed by a 3-2 vote and came after commissioners opted not to vote on the agreement Feb. 19. Commissioners Dan Belshan, Mike Lee and Jim Nelson voted to delay the vote until the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission finalizes a project-related noise definition. Commissioners Glen Mathiason and Chris Shoff voted no.
Freeborn County Administrator Thomas Jensen said Tuesday afternoon the county and Association of Freeborn County Landowners lawyer Carol Overland have different opinions on whether a ruling could impact the project site permit.
In bringing the agreement before the board, Jensen said Freeborn County Attorney David Walker had vetted the agreement and called it “the best document that we can put in front of you.”
In voting to delay approving the agreement, Nelson said he was concerned about the potential use of right of way for the project.
Concern was expressed that Chicago-based developer Invenergy could purchase right of way without being a public utility company. Walker noted in a Dodge County case, the Minnesota attorney general broadened the scope of companies that can purchase right of way to include power companies. Freeborn County staff believe Invenergy can apply for the space.
Forty-two turbines are expected to be in Freeborn County. Fifty-eight are slated for Iowa. Once the project is constructed, Xcel Energy will own and operate the site.
Walker and Jensen said the county needs to make the decision based on legal requirements, adding the county cannot act arbitrarily or capriciously, or it could be sued.
Jensen and Walker said commissioners would not signal project approval by approving the agreement. They said approval only signifies they are protecting their infrastructure in case of damage.
Mathiason derided the outcome of the vote.
“This is about protecting Freeborn County,” he said.
Following the vote, Shoff, board chairman, expressed disapproval of the atmosphere of the at times heated meeting. He used his gavel at least twice to stop yelling from throughout the room when commissioners debated the issue.
In a public meeting prior to the vote, Stephanie Richter of Glenville asked commissioners to excuse Mathiason from voting because he rode a bus with wind farm supporters to the September meeting and received a free lunch.
“I find this a definite conflict of interest by the commissioner,” she said.
Richter said she was upset the county would consider “giving away any property rights” in accordance with the project.
Overland said Freeborn Wind has spent far more in lobbying than the association.
“There is no rush to do a development agreement,” she said.
Association of Freeborn County Landowners member Dorenne Hanson questioned whether commissioners had reviewed the agreement.
“This is our lives we’re talking about,” she said.
Hanson said 30 of the 42 participating landowners do not live within 1 mile of the turbines.
Invenergy Senior Manager for Project Development Dan Litchfield discussed community involvement the company has undertaken, noting the financial payments Invenergy has made to landowners and the tax impact the project will have.
Litchfield said the project will result in health benefits, noting the American Lung Association has found air emissions will benefit asthmatics and people with other breathing conditions.
“The project is real,” he said. “Construction is imminent.”
Local governments are reportedly protected by letters of credit, insurance and indemnity.
Freeborn Wind Energy lawyer Christina Brusven said Jensen, Freeborn County Public Works Director Sue Miller and Walker spoke with other counties and discussed the successes and failures they underwent.
“They’ve done a nice job working through all of those issues,” Brusven said.
She said eminent domain is only used as a last option.
To Brusven, county board approval is helpful when the company discusses the project with townships.
Tim Westrum, a farmer and non-participating landower, said he plans to stay in Freeborn County to farm the rest of his life and wants to ensure the voices of himself and other farmers are heard.
Belshan expressed concern the distance between turbines and right of ways could lead to cars being hit by ice chunks falling off of the turbines.
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