The Reno County Planning Commission voted 4-3 Tuesday night to recommend the County Commission deny a conditional use permit sought by NextEra Energy. The permit would allow the development of commercial wind farm in southeastern Reno County.
The vote came after a three-hour hearing during which different members of the board tried at least four times unsuccessfully to add higher setbacks for turbines from non-participating properties.
In their votes recommending denial, the majority cited concerns that the project did not benefit the health and welfare of the county and there remained unanswered questions about the project and its potential impact.
County residents that the company was legally required to notify about the public hearings now have 14 days to file protest petitions that could force a unanimous vote of the Reno County Commission to approve the permit and override the planning commission recommendation.
It was not clear how quickly the Commission will take up NextEra’s application.
“We’re disappointed with the planning and zoning commission’s decision not to recommend the conditional use permit to the county commissioners,” stated NextEra spokesman Conlan Kennedy. “We recognize that the county commissioners have the ultimate decision and we look forward to their review. Our project has the potential to deliver tremendous benefits to the entire community.
About 100 people were in Tuesday night’s audience at the Fox Theatre.
Nearly 130 people previously spoke against the proposed development over three nights of public hearings, while less than two dozen people voiced support.
At the start of Tuesday’s hearing, the county’s consultant, Russ Ewy of Wichita, renewed county staff’s recommendation that the permit be approved and outlined the reasons for it.
NextEra officials also indicated that they had removed five turbines from their plans, leaving 81 sited and three alternate sites that would be used if they ran into issues with any of the primary sites during construction.
The removed turbines included one near the home of a family of a recently-diagnosed epileptic daughter, two in unzoned portions of the county exceeding the maximum shadow flicker promised by the company, and two that were near grass airport runways.
Company officials also indicated they have a meeting scheduled next Tuesday with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to continue discussing a buffer around Cheney Reservoir. The agency initially sought a three-mile buffer, but several turbines are within 2 ½ miles, including one just two miles from the lake.
The officials did not indicate, however, whether they’d be willing to remove or relocate some of those turbines.
Among the first questions for staff from the board was from Commissioner Harley Macklin, who asked how much the county could expect in property taxes for years 11 to 30, and whether it was in line with the $39 million he said was suggested by NextEra.
Appraiser Brad Wright said he didn’t have any idea, but using a current market estimate of $2.5 million per turbine, at this year’s mill levy rate, it would equate to just under $10,000 per turbine – or about $800,000 the first year, or $16 million over 20 years.
The equipment, however, would also depreciate annually until it bottomed out at 20 percent and it would then remain at that level for its life. He didn’t indicate how quickly it would depreciate, but the total would be less than the $16 million.
“So, based on your best guess, NextEra’s $39 million would be too high?” Macklin concluded.
Board Chair Lisa French formally closed the public hearing at 7:34 p.m. and staff then outlined which factors it believed supported the permit.
The first motion to grant the conditional use application came more than two hours into the meeting, when Bruce Buchanan, who joined the board late last year, moved to add conditions to the permit limiting construction of the turbines at night,
He also asked to require that NextEra make its reports on bird kills at the site public, that it develop a mitigation plan to address any noise complaints from non-participating properties, and that townships be allowed to be part of any liability indemnification extended to the county as part of the agreement.
Macklin seconded the motion.
Commissioner Ken Jorn then made a motion to amend Buchanan’s motion, changing the setback in the proposed permit from the current 2,000 feet from the foundation of a home to 2,500 feet.
He also proposed 3-mile setbacks from schools and churches and, following another suggested friendly amendment, 3 miles from the Cheney State Park boundary.
That motion failed, however, on a 3-4 vote, with Mary Lynn Baker, Ken Jorns and Russ Goertzen voting for it.
Commissioner Steven Westfahl, who earlier said he wanted a minimum 1-mile setback from homes, voted against Jorn’s proposal.
He then made a motion to add a 2,500-foot setback from property boundaries of non-participating landowners, rather than the home foundation. He then offered the same pair of three-mile buffer recommendations and added a five-mile buffer around airstrips.
That vote also failed 3-4, with Baker voter against it, and several other reiterations of similar setback motions.
When the board eventually voted on Buchanan’s motion, members were asked to site-specific reasons for or against.
Macklin, Buchanan and French voted to recommend approval.
“I’m voting no based on that I’m not sure the general welfare of the entire county is protected,” Baker said.
Jorns said he didn’t believe the character of the surrounding neighborhood was appropriate, based on the density of population.
“I think more harm will be visited on the residents than for the welfare of the county as a whole,” he said. “I salute NextEra for proposing a grand project. It’s a dandy project in the wrong place. Three-fourths of the county would be a better place than this location.”
Westfahl disagreed with numerous issues, questioning the fiscal soundness of the plan.
Russ Goertzen also opposed it, stating it was not compatible with the only part of the county experience organic residential growth.
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