ERIE – A survey being circulated by a Neosho County commissioner shows that all but two respondents favor a wind energy project, but opponents quickly decided that the survey is skewed.
Commissioner David Orr said during a regular Thursday evening meeting that he had spent a couple of days passing along a survey door to door that he created. He said he was shocked to learn that 24 residents in the south part of the county where Apex Clean Energy plans to build a 139-turbine wind farm favor the project.
Many in the large audience gathered for the meeting specifically for discussion of the wind energy project weren’t as shocked after reading the survey that was distributed among them.
“This to me is a joke,” said a woman who declined to be identified. “They don’t explain anything. This is ridiculous.”
Her comments conveyed the prevailing sentiments of the residents opposed to or concerned about the wind farm.
It seemed based on the lack of explanation of the wind turbine project and the questions used that anyone not familiar with the project would support it. It’s possible, however, that all or at least most of the survey respondents are aware of the details of the project, which has been discussed openly since last fall.
The yes and no questions include: Are you for land owner rights? Are you for county-wide zoning? Are you for increased revenue for Neosho County? He also asked if the respondent wants commissioners to vote in favor of the Neosho Ridge project. The survey also asks if people are content with the proposed setbacks – the required distance from turbines to property lines. That question did explain that the setbacks would be 1,025 feet from property lines and 1,640 feet from nonparticipating property lines but used an exclamation point for punctuation, possibly instilling in the minds of those responding that the setbacks are highly favorable.
Orr said he wouldn’t release the names of those who turned in completed surveys because some fear how they would be treated if opponents discovered their support of the project.
Lori Whitworth, a spokesperson for concerned residents, asked the commissioners if they would consider an official survey of the people in Neosho Ridge’s footprint, but the commission didn’t give a clear answer. Some residents also have surveyed people on the issue, but those results weren’t discussed Thursday.
Dustie Elsworth, another spokesperson for the group, asked commissioners if they had seen sound or shadow-flicker maps for the project, and the commission hasn’t. He said it is important that they and the public see those maps before a decision is made. The county doesn’t have zoning, which could restrict the project, but Apex must get a road-use agreement to move the large, heavy turbine parts to their sites. The road-use agreement is the only control the county has over the project as it likely will include required setbacks and other issues.
The two other agreements Apex will have with the county are a contribution agreement on the amount the company will pay during the 10 years the project is exempt from taxes (payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT), and a decommissioning agreement that outlines the process for dismantling the turbines at the end of the life of the project.
Discussion on Thursday also focused on the site location map. Although a map has yet to be publicly distributed, Apex posts an updated map at its field office in Erie. The commissioners all have seen the map, but it is constantly changing.
Orr said Apex is on the 49th version of the map. He said the public shouldn’t expect the company to publicly issue maps each time they change and that it takes about a week to map out the project again after changes are made. Orr, however, said he wasn’t defending Apex.
“I probably fight with them more than anyone,” Orr said.
Orr also said he felt the company has been very fair with him.
Orr asked by a show of hands how many people had gone to Apex to look at the map, and only about seven raised their hands. One woman said she works during the day and can’t leave to go look at a map.
James Stovall, site manager and chief electrical inspector for Apex, said he would open the office by appointment in evenings and on weekends for anyone who wanted to view the most current map.
“Anybody’s welcome to come in and view the maps in the office,” Stovall said.
Stovall said the company is getting close to having a final project layout that could be distributed publicly.
Elsworth and Whitworth also asked commissioners if they have seen a safety protocol from Vesta, the proposed turbine manufacturer for the project. Commissioners asked Jade Scheele, Apex development manager, when they could see safety guidelines. She said the turbine supply agreement hasn’t been signed, so the safety protocols could change if the turbine model is changed. She plans to consult with Vesta on when a safety guide could be issued for the project, but it’s likely much closer to the construction date.
“I would like to see that,” Commissioner David Bideau said to the agreement of the other two commissioners.
Scheele said she would email the commissioners next week.
Elsworth also asked if the commissioners planned to work with the city of Parsons, which through its lake advisory board has expressed concerns about adequate setbacks from Lake Parsons, which is in Neosho County and in the Neosho Ridge footprint. Orr said he’s not concerned about Parsons’ position on the issue because the city doesn’t pay taxes on the lake to Neosho County. He said he will consider Ducks Unlimited’s wish for proper setbacks from lakes and wetlands, and Bideau said it was a factor for him.
“We’re not going to let that slide,” Orr said.
While the effects on waterfowl is a concern, the key issue with many residents remains the setbacks, which Elsworth addressed again Thursday.
Elsworth said Apex hasn’t been fair in negotiating with residents not leasing property. He and others spoke to Apex about setbacks, initially asking for a mile setback. They realized that was impractical and lowered their request to 4,000 feet from a house and 2,000 feet from a property line. Apex started with a proposed setback of 660 feet and now has raised it only to 1,025 feet, Elsworth said. The residents are giving up much more than Apex, which has only increased its proposed setback by 365 feet.
“I don’t see that that’s fair. I don’t feel like they’re trying to do anything,” Elsworth said. “It’s all one-sided. There are a lot of people out there who are really concerned and have good thoughts and have researched this.”
“I feel like everything is slanted in their favor,” Elsworth said.
Even so, Elsworth said if Apex relaxes its setbacks for the leased properties while maintaining the proposed setback for nonparticipants, the company could drastically cut back on the amount of land needed for the project.
Elsworth also said the commissioners need to push for a guarantee from Apex that property values won’t decrease too drastically and if they do nonparticipants be paid. The commission should give notice to all footprint property owners of the need to get an updated appraisal on their properties so they could later prove if their properties decreased in value because of a nearby turbine.
“I feel like that’s something that’s really, really important,” Elsworth said.
Elsworth also said it’s important that the commission insist on front-loading a significant percentage of Apex’s payment in lieu of taxes so the county can ensure it gets that money. Ed Spielbusch also talked about that idea.
Spielbusch said most of the proposed PILOT revenue is payable after Year 10, when the assets hit the tax rolls. Tax protests are underway in Oklahoma by wind companies now that their tax abatements have expired. Spielbusch said the full $63,628,449 proposed in property tax and PILOT revenue could be jeopardized, so the county should accelerate the total payments to be collected in the first 10 years.
About 1 ½ hours of Thursday’s meeting was spent in executive session as the commissioners consulted with County Counselor Seth Jones and Wichita attorney Patricia Blankenship by phone. The phone meeting with Blankenship originally was set for Wednesday, but one commissioner couldn’t attend because of a family issue. Commissioner Paul Westhoff said last week the commission had planned to talk to Blankenship about restrictions such as setbacks that could be included in a road-use agreement.
During the public comment period Thursday, several residents spoke about Neosho Ridge, including three who had never addressed the issue in a meeting, according to Whitworth.
Jamie Gates said she and her husband lived in Pittsburg before deciding to build a house in rural Erie because of the peace and quiet. They finished construction in May 2016, before the possible wind energy project became public. Had they known then that a turbine would be built near their home, they probably would have built elsewhere.
Now, Gates said, they fear that devaluation of their property could lead to them owing more for their home than it’s worth.
“And that is not right. It’s egregious,” she said.
Gates said giant turbines could drive away younger people from the county who seek the tranquility that rural life is supposed to offer. She asked commissioners to make responsible and informed decisions about the project and show that they care about all residents of the county and not just money.
John Altman, a volunteer Galesburg firefighter, said he is concerned about turbine fires, which he said occur more than people think. He said with the 600-foot turbines proposed, fire embers would carry hundreds of feet or even miles. Galesburg firefighters could do nothing but watch the fires burn because they lack equipment to extinguish fires that high.
A couple of project supporters also spoke Thursday.
Lease holder Greg Brungardt said the commission only needs to be concerned about a road-variance agreement. The agreement doesn’t need to include setbacks or other restrictions beyond what is required of oil, natural gas or utility companies, he said.
“This is a legal business and a legal enterprise, and we’ve signed legal agreements,” Brungardt said.
Charlie Wheeler said a lot of high school students use Plummer Road, which the county could keep maintained with money from Apex. There are many miles of gravel roads that the county also must maintain, Wheeler said, and there are many other ways the Apex PILOT money could be spent.
“I think you have an obligation to look at that,” he said.