The steady stream of opposition to NextEra’s application for a wind farm permit continued for a third day Wednesday, as speaker after speaker addressing the Reno County Planning Commission continued raising objections to the project.
The residents, mostly from Reno County or living near the county line in Sedwick County, reiterated many of the same concerns raised at earlier sessions of the continuing hearing this week, though usually citing different experts or sources and offering their personal takes on the potential impact of the massive development.
Many voiced support for commercial wind development, but found issues with NextEra’s plan, asking the Planning Commission to impose stricter setbacks from turbines, more extensive safety zones and lower allowable noise limits.
The residents echoed serious concerns about health, safety and the impact on property values if the project as proposed is approved.
On Wednesday, they told stories of families on multi-generational homesteads – both those here for decades and newly arrived – who are debating a move or questioning their decisions to come here.
They talked of new divisions in their communities created by the choice to participate in the development or not, and feelings of dread and devastation felt by those not offered a choice.
By the time the public comment period closed about 6:30 p.m., after more than 13 hours of public comment, the ratio of those asserting opposition closely matched the split of participating vs. non-participating landowners within the proposed footprint in the southeast quadrant of the county – with 87 percent against the plan.
With the conclusion of public comment, NextEra Energy will be allowed time for rebuttal. The company requested 90 minutes, which will be followed by any additional staff comments.
The board will reconvene 5 p.m. Thursday to take NextEra’s rebuttal. Committee Chair Lisa French indicated the board then would meet later to discuss the issue and take a vote on a recommendation to forward to the Reno County Commission. It can recommend approval or denial of the conditional use permit as presented, or tack on specific additional requirements.
Many of the speakers repeated calls for the county to impose a moratorium on industrial wind conversion until new countywide restrictions are written.
“When Cheney Reservoir was completed in 1964, it was not without controversy,” area resident Rick Lyda said on Wednesday. “It was done through eminent domain. More than a few lost their homes and property. Some never recovered. The lake benefited Wichita and the surrounding community. It was a typical case of the loss of a few was outweighed by the benefit to the many.”
“This,” Lyda said, “is the opposite. It’s the enrichment of a few over the detriment of the many. Consider how many lives you are affecting and the multiple generations that will be impacted by mostly absentee landowners.”
Two more speakers talked about the “danger zones” within a certain distance of turbines, where ice may be thrown or debris if a turbine fails. They noted the NextEra proposal meets minimum guidelines but not the distances recommend by the GE, the turbine maker.
The minimum setbacks are based on the distance of a turbine base from the foundation of a home, rather than a hub to the property line. That creates areas on the property of non-participants that could fall within those zones that residents claimed was a taking of their property, since they fear building on it or even letting their children play there.
Different speakers suggested a variety of minimum setbacks, ranging from 2,500 feet, like in Pratt County, to a mile, citing danger and noise as primary factors for the increased space. A document presented to the commission by a group of landowners before the hearings recommended a minimum 3,000-foot setback.
Other requests were for a noise restriction of a maximum 30 decibels at night or turning the turbines off.
Speakers included a pair of registered nurses and a psychiatric nurse who took umbrage at NextEra officials minimizing or ridiculing concerns for health, noting that unabated blinking lights and noise from turbines being too close disturb sleep and cause stress, which can lead to real and chronic health issues.
Lynn Tahlmann, the father-in-law of a woman who pleaded last Thursday that the Planning Commission protect her daughter, recently diagnosed with epilepsy, from shadow flicker, advised the board that NextEra had since agreed to relocate the turbine to eliminate flicker on her home.
He was still opposed to the development, however, because of the remaining risk for others.
“There are still too many people adversely affected by this project,” he said. “I ask the Planning Commission to deny the conditional use permit and set a moratorium in place to protect us all.”
Another safety issue several speakers raised was the interference to weather radar created by spinning turbines.
Mt. Hope area resident Patrick Ferguson outlined a discussion he had with the National Weather Service about that agency’s request that wind farm developers work with them to place turbines to minimize interference and, at the least, notify it about plans so they can be made to compensate for the interference. The NWS contact advised him, Ferguson said, they’ve had no word from NextEra.
Residents Michelle Albert and Britney Loomis teamed up to offer, each in their allotted five minutes, a report from Illinois meteorologist Donald Waddell about the impact on radar and relay a story about a wind farm in Illinois masking a tornado and delaying public warning.
At least six speakers on Wednesday called for a minimum three-mile setback from Cheney Reservoir that was recommended by state and national wildlife officials, and others asked the developers to do more to reduce the risk to eagles, hundreds of which appear at Cheney each year, and endangered whooping cranes that fly through the area twice a year on migrations.
Several residents criticized the inadequacy of mandated wildlife studies done by a company hired by NextEra, noting it often takes hours of observation, not 20 minutes a day, to observe rare birds.
Mary Schmidt, of rural Mount Hope, noted the irony of efforts to protect the eastern spotted skunk, a protected species known to be in the area, “as more important than our precious children.”
“A motion for a moratorium for… a study focused on the health, safety and welfare of the people of Reno County was denied, but a survey of animals and birds continued into this year. How does this make sense, when we decided birds and wildlife are more valuable than human beings?” Schmidt asked.
Two other issues raised by speakers on Wednesday included the lighting of the towers and insurance indemnification carried by NextEra.
Pilot Shawn Kelley of Garden Plain suggested the county require NextEra use lights on the towers that are activated only when an airplane is within a certain distance, which has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Evidence shows light activation is reduced to less than 1 percent of the time,” he said. “This should be required if you approve this project moving forward.”
Michelle Nichols told a story Thursday of seeing an array of blinking lights of another wind farm south of her home and decided to drive to see how far it was away.
“We drove and drove and drove some more,” she said. “Nearly an hour later we ended up in Harper County, 20 miles north of the Oklahoma border. You could see these things from Reno County.”
She took the time to talk to residents and experience the turbines. Like several speakers before, she suggested the commission members visit a wind farm for themselves before voting.
Silver Lake Road resident Angie Valentine-Rohlman called the $1 million liability limit proposed in its application by NextEra “ludicrously low.”
“If a turbine ignites a fire and it burns hundreds of acres and destroys 10 homes and injures people, $1 million is not sufficient to mitigate that damage,” she said. “Landowners leasing land need to be prepared, because after NextEra’s policy is exhausted – and a million doesn’t go very far in a large liability – they will be next in line for the lawsuits in the recovery of damages.”
“A community like ours depends on each other,” said Andrew Egli, who said he’s moved out of the place he’s lived in the past four years because of the proposal, though he remains in the area. “If you make a decision based on money in a small community like this, and have no regard for the people, you will destroy it. The money won’t build it up; it will tear it down.”
“You can side with them (NextEra) or the people who live here, the people who pay taxes, who built this county into what it is,” Egli said. “It’s not an easy decision, but it seems simple to me…. We were living fine without them, and most of us would like to continue doing so.”
“My family has the chance to look at a turbine 2,000 feet from our home,” said Hayden Brown, 11, who noted there would be nine turbines within a mile of his home. “We’ll receive 24 hours and 55 minutes of shadow flicker. On the bright side, my family and I have met so many interesting people. There’ve been so many long nights. My mom tries her best, but my family is sad and weary because of this. Our family has not spent much time together as a family because of this. A divided community is not where we want to be… For everyone who lives in the county, implement the right zoning to protect the residents of Reno County. Please, not just for my family, but for the sake of everyone who comes here.”
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