The Iowa Supreme Court rejected an effort Friday by local landowners to block a proposed wind farm in northwest Iowa after it won approval from government regulators.
The court’s rulings remove a major obstacle for the 170-turbine wind energy project in Palo Alto County. It also provides more certainty that similar projects will be able to proceed in the future.
Residents filed two lawsuits challenging the plan by Palo Alto Wind Energy and MidAmerican Energy, one against the Iowa Utilities Board and another against the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors.
The utilities board lawsuit contended board members should have required developers to get a “certificate of public convenience, use and necessity” that would have required an extensive study of the project’s impact on neighbors and the environment.
At issue was an ambiguous section of Iowa law that mandates the certificate for large wind-energy projects located at a single site.
The utilities board chose to define “single site” as a collection of wind turbines that are all linked by a single line to a power substation. Based on that interpretation, the utilities board said the Palo Alto County wind farm was not a single site but a cluster of different facilities because they used different lines. None of those individual facilities produced enough energy to require a special certificate.
Wallace Taylor, a Cedar Rapids attorney who represented the property owners, said the utility board’s interpretation of Iowa law allows the wind industry to avoid scrutiny of its impact on the environment and local residents.
Taylor said his clients were disappointed with the ruling and called on state lawmakers to address the issue. He said the Iowa Utilities Board “has been derelict” in its duty to review wind-energy projects.
“I support wind energy. I think we have to go to wind energy as quickly as we can. But these projects need to be sited properly,” he said.
His clients, Bertha and Stephen Mathis, of Emmetsburg, argued that the entire 340-megawatt wind farm should have been treated as one big site and subject to the environmental review.
The high court ruled that the standard used by the utilities board was more consistent with state law than the one proposed in the lawsuit. Justices also noted that Iowa lawmakers haven’t challenged the state utility board’s interpretation of the law.
Bertha and Stephen Mathis’ lawsuit against the county, with five other plaintiffs, challenged the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors’ process for approving the project under a newly approved zoning ordinance.
Palo Alto County Attorney Peter Hart said he was relieved and thankful that the court upheld the county’s zoning rules. Hart said the ordinance was carefully designed to promote wind-energy development while protecting the interests of local residents.
“Iowa would have been back to square one as far as wind energy” if the court had ruled the other way, Hart said.
The lawsuit contended that the county’s zoning requirements for wind turbines, approved in 2016, were primarily were written by wind-industry officials. The high court rejected the argument, saying it was crafted by Hart with industry input. It also denied residents’ arguments that the county board’s decision was arbitrary and capricious.
“As this case reveals, wind farms are not without drawbacks,” Justice Edward Mansfield wrote in the ruling. “But in this case, the weighing of those drawbacks against any benefits was entrusted to the elected representatives of the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors.”
Representatives for the Iowa Utilities Board didn’t immediately return a phone message seeking comment.
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