As opponents of a proposed wind farm in Reno County work to gather enough petitions to force a unanimous vote by the Reno County Commission on the issue, an unidentified organization is conducting a telephone campaign in support of the development.
The Reno County Planning Commission voted 4-3 last week to send a recommendation to the Reno County Commission that it deny the conditional use permit sought by NextEra Energy to allow construction of a 220-megawatt wind farm in southeast Reno County.
The vote came after nearly 20 hours of comment during a public hearing spread over four days.
The county commission has not yet scheduled a vote.
How many votes?
While a recommendation to deny the permit legally requires a super majority of the County Commission to override it, “there are two flavors of a supermajority,” said planning consultant Russ Ewy of Wichita.
“We run into confusion with the issue almost every time,” Ewy said. “On a three-member commission, the vote to overturn that recommendation for denial is the same for a supermajority as a simple majority – you need two out of three.”
In the case of a supermajority required as the result of a petition filing, however, it requires a 4/5th vote, rather than a 2/3rd majority for an override, Ewy said.
So, in the case of a three-member board, that means a unanimous vote is required.
The commission, of course, also can agree with the planning commission or modify the volunteer board’s recommendation by adding requirements for approval of the project.
The math to get to whether a protest petition itself is valid is even more complicated than the vote.
“It’s not the number of people that file a petition, but a percentage of the land area,” Ewy said.
A valid petition requires the signatures of the owners of 20 percent of the land that is owned by non-participating landowners within a certain distance of turbines.
“It’s easy to do, but hard to explain,” Ewy said. “Every property owner that is within a 1,000-foot buffer of the land with a turbine has to be notified of the project.”
Those same people are eligible to file a protest petition. If they do, officials then will map each filer’s land and determine how much of that land is actually within 1,000 feet of the boundary of a participating piece of land.
“Some opposing property owners in Reno County are making the claim that if leased land (leased by NextEra for a turbine) touches my half section, that means my half section worth is in the protest area,” Ewy said. “But it’s not. Just because it touches, you can’t use the whole ownership, but only that part within 1,000 feet of the buffer. It’s relevant to the footprint of the turbines.”
It may be a quarter section or just 3 acres, Ewy said, or maybe even only 60 or 70 feet.
For the petition to be valid, it also must contain the legal description of the individual piece of land involved, and the signatures of everyone who owns a share of that particular piece of ground, regardless of where they now live.
It will be his job, Ewy said, to determine whether each petition is valid and what it contributes to the whole.
The 14-day window to file petitions closes 5 p.m. May 7. A form for the petition is available through the county’s website.
One resident who attended most of the public hearings called The News last week to advise he’d received a call from someone who said they represented a group in favor of the wind project.
The resident didn’t catch the name of who the caller represented, or capture a phone number on caller ID.
The caller offered to provide information on the benefits of the project. When the resident replied he was well informed, the caller then offered to connect him directly to his county commissioner to share support. The resident declined.
The resident lives in the area represented by Commissioner Bob Bush. Bush, contacted on Friday, said he’d received no phone calls, but he had received 15 to 20 emails stating an opinion. Some, Bush said, came “from a generator email,” though most were original.
“They were all polite and professional, just people sharing their opinions,” he said. “It was really good to see.”
The News contacted the Climate and Energy project to see if it was involved in the phone solicitation. Director Dorothy Barnett said she wished they were, but it was not something her agency could afford.
The News also attempted to contact someone with a purported group that published a full-page ad in The News on April 24.
The ad stated it was “authorized and paid for by Kansans for Energy Options.” The ad provided a website link and phone number.
Into the wind?
The link, however, went to an empty GoDaddy page that stated “Parked for Free by GoDaddy” and which indicated the domain name was for sale.
The advertisement also listed a Lenexa Post Office box and Kansas City area phone number. The phone went to an untraceable Google Voice number and an unanswered voicemail.
The ad was placed by an Oklahoma City advertising firm, Jones PR, which claimed the company placing the ad was no longer a client and that it could provide no contact information.
Kansans for Energy Options also has a Facebook page, but there are no links to contacts or other information about the organization.
Multiple ads run on the page since its creation in 2017 state that they are paid for by American Policy Advocates. Early ads were only a few dollars, but the most recent ads were more than $500 each, according to analytics on the page.
Neither Kansans for Energy Options nor American Policy Advocates are registered with the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office as businesses or nonprofits operating in the state. Neither was listed as lobbyists registered in the state or with the federal government.
Internet searches turned up nothing about either except the Facebook page.
It was unclear whether the individuals placing the ad or making the phone solicitations are legally required to identify themselves since the effort is to influence a vote by an elected board on a quasi-judicial matter.
The office of Governmental Ethics in Topeka referred questions to the Secretary of State’s office, which had transferred the call to Governmental Ethics.
They then suggested it was an issue to be determined by the local County Clerk’s office, though the Reno County Clerk said she’d never been required to make such a determination.
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