Two Republican lawmakers answered concerns about the wind farm project proposed in Neosho County Wednesday morning at a legislative coffee.
Twenty-two people attended the event at the Wall Family Center, 26th and Main. Rep. Richard Proehl and Sen. Dan Goddard, both Parsons Republicans, spoke briefly about legislative matters before answering questions for about 40 minutes.
Tom Shaw, a Parsons city commissioner, who has previously raised concerns about the Neosho Ridge wind farm planned by Apex Clean Energy in southern Neosho county, asked Proehl and Goddard about setbacks from lakes and wildlife areas. Lake Parsons, the source of water for the city of Parsons, is located in Neosho County and is close to the footprint for wind turbines. He wondered if a Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism recommendation for setbacks from lakes and wildlife areas would have any teeth.
While the project in Neosho County may be close to a vote, he said the issue will not go away. Wind farms will continue being developed as long as the tax credit is in place to make the ventures lucrative. These farms will impact Southeast Kansas and Kansas in general.
Ducks Unlimited recommended a 5 kilometer setback for wind turbines from lakes and wetlands. The longer setback would allow ducks to continue to thrive. There are nearly 19 wind turbines within 5 kilometers of Lake Parsons, a duck hunting location, and several would be within 1 1/2 miles of the lake.
Proehl said a House committee heard a bill that discussed setbacks, but that bill didn’t make it out of committee. He said the state could put setbacks and restrictions in place or counties could zone.
“I hear a lot about people prefer local control. And if they’re really wanting to look that way they probably better look at county zoning,” Proehl said.
He said House Bill 2273 would have required setbacks of 1.5 miles from homes. As written, that would have eliminated any wind farm in Southeast Kansas, Proehl said.
“Good,” one attendee said.
“The restrictions, they were probably extreme. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be any restrictions. I know there needs to be,” Proehl said.
Shaw said Ducks Unlimited and the Southeast Kansas Audubon Society recommended a 3-mile forage area for nesting locations, which would keep turbines three miles back from Lake Parsons, Lake McKinley and the Neosho Wildlife Area. He said Wildlife and Parks agrees with those recommendations.
Proehl and Goddard said Wildlife and Parks should make a recommendation to lawmakers.
Goddard added that state involvement can mess things up.
Lori Whitworth said the idea of local control is nice. But where was the local control when the state approved the 10-year tax holiday for wind farms? The state wants to control the money. She asked for the lawmakers to clarify the comment about the state messing things up if it gets involved.
Proehl said if the state got involved in wind farm setbacks or restrictions locals may not like the way it ends up. But a lot of companies may not like the way it ends up either. He said he would have no problem looking at the issue, but county zoning would give citizens more input.
Whitworth said billion-dollar wind developers have influence in smaller counties when they and their attorneys roll into town and convince county commissions that options are limited on restrictions.
“That’s been the experience in Neosho County,” she said.
At local meetings, citizens hear that they should complain to state officials. State officials tell them to talk with local officials, Whitworth said.
“It’s like passing the buck both ways,” she said.
Goddard said communities should regulate zoning issues.
Proehl said if nothing is done locally, lawmakers can still push for action next year.
Whitworth said that would be too late for Neosho County.
“I understand that,” Proehl said.
Ron Holsteen, CEO of Twin Valley Electric Cooperative, said he’s a member of Ducks Unlimited. He said there are studies about the effects of turbine setbacks from residences, but DU is concerned about the 607-foot turbine towers that would be spinning close to waterfowl areas.
What impact will turbines have on waterfowl migration and migratory birds? Will these birds move elsewhere?
“That would be disastrous to this area. If you look at the dollars that come in to this area because of waterfowl hunting and stuff, it’s tremendous,” Holsteen said.
Whitworth later asked about the recent nomination by the governor’s office to replace a non-affiliated county commissioner in Neosho County. The laws address replacing candidates who are affiliated with a political party and the timeline that committees have to choose a replacement. There is no such guide in the law for an unaffiliated candidate.
The governor’s office became involved in replacing Neosho County Commissioner Jennifer Orr on March 29, the day after her resignation, and the next week set a short deadline for applications to replace her, though the office already had a candidate apply. The application process was later extended to Monday. On Tuesday, Gov. Laura Kelly nominated David G. Orr to complete his ex-wife’s term on the commission.
Proehl said the law probably needs to be looked at to allow qualified people more time to express interest in openings. Goddard agreed.
— Labette Community College President Mark Watkins, Ph.D., asked if lawmakers were discussing the penalties that colleges or school districts would have to pay for hiring a KPERS retiree. He said the penalty to colleges or districts is 30 percent to employee a KPERS retired teacher. With shortages of teachers in Kansas, it would be nice to hire a retired teacher for openings without worrying about that penalty.
“I think that would be a great way to help education institutions across the state to fill needs, especially when we have our own qualified folks who are living in Kansas,” Watkins said.
— Goddard mentioned earlier that the Senate heard a motion to debate the Medicaid expansion bill. Senate leadership has blocked advancement this session of Medicaid expansion, which would increase the coverage of health care to poor Kansans. The motion for debate will stay on the table and be voted on when the Senate returns May 1. The vote may get the proposal out of committee, but he didn’t think there were the 27 votes needed to raise the bill for debate on the Senate floor. Goddard supports Medicaid expansion. The House passed an expansion bill and Proehl supported it.
“I really think there are things that we need to do for those that are less fortunate in our state,” Goddard said.
— Sandy Babcock asked about credit card fees and the money Kansas businesses pay to accept credit cards. She said her business encourages customers to pay in ways other than credit cards, because these cards cost the business money. She said eight states don’t require a business to pay the credit card fees. Both lawmakers wanted to look into that. Proehl said he understands the cost of credit cards. He sits on the Kansas Turnpike Authority board and toll payers using credit cards cost the state $3.5 million a year in credit card fees.
— Another asked about Kansas collecting sales tax on out-of-state companies that sell their goods to Kansans. The governor vetoed a bill that contained that provision. The tax gives online retailers an advantage over local businesses and could lead to the demise of the local business environment. Goddard and Proehl hoped the bill could be resurrected this session or next.
— Dr. Stephen Miller asked about the state of the Kansas economy. He sees lots of trucks on the highways between Parsons and Kansas City and lots of cattle in pastures. That tells him the economy is moving. Proehl said Kansas is in a better position than it was five years ago. Lawmakers passed some bills to collect more revenue for highways (raising registration fees on electric and hybrid vehicles, $100 and $50, respectively). Goddard said if there is a downturn in the nation’s economy, Kansas could be in trouble.
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