LAFAYETTE, Ind. – As protests mounted Monday about the message being sent to the rest of Indiana and world about Tippecanoe County’s commitment to green energy, the biggest turbines and commercial wind farms were banned from rural land around Lafayette and West Lafayette.
Tippecanoe County commissioners – arguing that a growing county couldn’t afford to hamstring other kinds of development with long-term leases tying up tens of thousands of acres around Lafayette and West Lafayette – voted 3-0 for a zoning ordinance that prohibits wind turbines taller 140 feet.
That would leave the possibility for smaller turbines, similar to ones that power CityBus offices along Canal Road north of downtown Lafayette. But it effectively shut out commercial turbines, which can range from 300 feet to as much as 600 feet, for newer models, as seen in neighboring Benton and White counties.
The ordinance, driven by several dozen residents primarily in the southern part of the county, has been in the works for several months. In April, the Tippecanoe County Area Plan Commission – a body made up of representatives from government bodies in Lafayette, West Lafayette, Tippecanoe County and three towns in the county – recommended the language in an 11-4 vote.
That night in April, though, a number of people told APC members that the county was making a mistake by shunning renewable energy and essentially casting a vote for the coal and fossil fuel industries.
That litany continued Monday morning, this time as a last-ditch plea to the three county commissioners.
“When you’re in a community hosting Purdue University, an education institution renowned worldwide in engineering, here our county commissioners are going to vote to accept a ban limiting innovation (and) growth,” said Derek Reuters, a Lafayette resident.
“If we want to send a message around the world that Purdue’s a great institution, if we want to send a message that we’re a community that accepts innovation and growth in renewable, safe, healthy energy production, and we want to be a community that looks out after our future generations, I think you should vote no,” Reuters said.
Susan Schechter, a Lafayette resident, said she couldn’t understand the county’s motivation.
“We’re dependent on an old, dirty technology to support our economy,” Schechter said. “Why would we say we’re not going to support a clean solution that would benefit us in terms of clean jobs and income from a generation of clean energy? I’m just like, Why? Why are we taking this step?”
Tim Strueh, who lives near Linden, close to the Montgomery County line, was among residents who pushed for the ordinance – the second in the past dozen years aimed at wind turbines. In 2007, Tippecanoe County set zoning restrictions that demanded setbacks of 750 feet from neighboring properties without turbines and at least 1,200 feet from dwellings.
“This is not about alternative energy,” Strueh said. “What this ordinance is about is proper siting for power plants.”
Proponents also argued about the potential harm to property values for homes that wind up in the shadows of wind turbines.
Commissioner Tom Murtaugh sided with residents, saying the ban was not a county statement against sustainable energy. In fact, he said, the county and the Area Plan Commission were getting set to come up with zoning guidelines in anticipation of a growth in solar energy.
“What comes out of this is that renewable energy is important, but it all needs to make sense,” Murtaugh said. “In the case of these giant wind farms, it doesn’t make sense. In Benton County, it does, because you don’t have the population growth like we do here. … It’s irresponsible to tie up 30,000 acres for decades in a county that is growing the way we are.”
Commissioners and county planners say they haven’t heard recently from wind farm companies, including Invenergy, a firm that, at one point, had been working to sign land leases in Tippecanoe County.
Clark Howey, a farmer in West Point, southwest of Lafayette, said the ordinance was going to hurt farmers looking for supplemental income on land in parts of the county never going to be targeted for industrial development.
“It just looks to me like the farmers down there have farmed this and farmed it for generation after generation after generation,” Howey said. “And now, all of a sudden, we’re too stupid to run the farm. It’s beyond me how this has happened.”
Commissioner David Byers, a dairy farmer, commiserated, saying he was torn over a measure that would restrict the agriculture community looking to stay afloat with lease payments for turbines. Still, he voted for the ordinance.
The commissioners’ vote effectively put the ordinance on the books for all unincorporated areas of Tippecanoe County, outside Lafayette, West Lafayette, Battle Ground, Dayton and Clarks Hill.
Lafayette was expected to consider the ordinance Monday night.
But the West Lafayette City Council tabled discussion and a potential vote Monday night, at the request to Mayor John Dennis.
“We have a lot of things in the works right now though the (West Lafayette) Go Greener Commission and some of the things that are going on with some of the construction that we’re doing here in the city that we’d like to present in a more holistic fashion,” Dennis told council members Thursday night.
What that means, exactly, is still in the works, Erik Carlson, West Lafayette’s development director, said Monday. Dennis told council members last week to expect something in time for the council’s June 3 meeting.
Peter Bunder is West Lafayette City Council president and a voting member of the Go Greener Commission, a board that advises the mayor and the city on environmental issues.
“I think there are a significant number of people in West Lafayette who think that banning an entire class of green energy is probably a bad idea,” Bunder said. “And they’ll want an opportunity to say that out loud, whether there are enough votes against it.”
Bunder said he wasn’t sure it would come to West Lafayette opting out of the ordinance.
“Practically, it means nothing, because we don’t have any land anywhere, and we’re right next to an airport, so we’re not going to build wind turbines in West Lafayette,” Bunder said. “But there are going to be some folks who’ll want to say, ‘What is the area’s commitment to renewable energy?’”
Sallie Fahey, Area Plan Commission’s executive director, said that if either city rejected the amendment to the countywide Unified Zoning Ordinance, current regulations would stay in place. Wind farms would still be permitted in office research and certain industrial zones. In West Lafayette’s case, the city has what Fahey called “a fair amount” of land zoned that way.
Fahey said cities or towns that had misgivings had another option. If they didn’t act in 90 days from the APC’s vote, the wind farm ban would automatically go into effect.
“So, if they want to avoid taking a stand by vote,” Fahey said, “this might be a course of action – or non-action in this case – they take.”
Bunder said he wasn’t sure it would come to either of those ends. Though, he said he wondered whether there could have been a more nuanced solution that allowed turbines in some of the most remote parts of the county, “where development might just mean a hog farm or a warehouse, instead of the next (Subaru of Indiana Automotive, Inc.).”
Julie Peretin, a Lafayette resident who lobbied for the wind farm ban, said she thought the measure was in the county’s best interest.
“It’s incredible to get this done,” Peretin said. “It took persistence. … We feel we made our case and the commissioners listened.”
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