The Hutchinson Chamber of Commerce sent out an email blast to its members last Friday advising them to contact Reno County Commissioners to ask them to support the proposed NextEra Energy wind farm in southeast Reno County.
That, despite the county commission adopting a policy in March – and reiterating it during at least two commission meetings since – that the commissioners cannot consider input on zoning applications such as the one sought by NextEra outside of information presented to it via the Reno County Planning Commission’s process.
Chamber President Debra Teufel said both the Chamber’s board of directors and its Economic Development Advisory Council asked the Chamber to take a more emphatic stance in support of the project.
That was after some members were “shocked and surprised” by the Planning Commission’s 4-3 vote recommending denial of conditional use permit for the Florida developer.
The Chamber, however, did not send out an email blast asking its members to appear before the Reno County Planning Commission, even after it became clear the vast majority of speakers were opposed to the wind farm.
The planning board conducted 20 hours of public hearings over two weeks.
Teufel and Siemens Gamesa’s local plant manager did both address the planning board, but most of the two dozen proponents who appeared were those benefiting from property leases within the project footprint.
Opponents of the 80-plus turbine project made up about a 5-to-1 majority of speakers.
Teufel said she did not believe the Chambers last-minute effort inappropriate, despite the county policy, or consider it political pressure though it was intended “to remind commissioners the chamber members were part of their constituency.”
The News was unable to reach the Chamber’s board chairman.
Reno County Commissioner Ron Hirst said he’d received less than a half dozen emails and no phone calls as of early Monday afternoon.
Hirst declined to criticize the Chamber’s action, noting “they’re looking after what they consider their priorities, just as those who oppose it looked after their priorities.”
“The biggest thing is the timing,” he said. “It should have been done in the public hearing phase. Because they didn’t, we can’t consider it. It wasn’t part of the public hearing presentation.”
Commissioner Ron Sellers said he didn’t have a count of emails since the request went out because he was moving the emails into a folder without looking at them, except if there wasn’t a subject line and he had to look inside the email to determine its subject, and then he’d move it.
“I believe the Chamber knew it was not an appropriate communication with the commission, but it’s possible they didn’t know,” Sellers said.
Commissioner Chairman Bob Bush indicated a couple of weeks ago he was doing the same thing with emails as Sellers, after another effort to influence the commission from a phone calling campaign by an unidentified group. The News did not reach out to him Monday.
“I don’t know what to say,” said County Administrator Gary Meagher, when asked if he thought the Chamber’s actions were appropriate. “That’s the action they took.”
“I think the commissioners have tried to abide by the policy that they adopted and I think they’ll continue to try to do that,” Meagher said. “They certainly felt it was important enough to adopt the policy they did, and I think they’ll stick with it.”
Teufel said the Chamber did adopt a support position before the Planning Commission hearing, which she voiced at that hearing.
It also advertised in The News supporting the project, citing the projects purported economic benefits outlined in a study by Fort Hays State University.
“Since then we’ve continued to hear from members and some from our committee who asked what we can do still to voice our support for the project, knowing the ruling… They questioned whether we’d been vocal enough.”
“We saw this an opportunity to educate our members about the facts we think are vital, particularly around the economic impact and the position Reno County has in the state in the wind energy industry,” she said. “Over 20 percent of counties in Kansas have a wind farm, and Reno County is benefiting from a wind company that’s invested in our community. It’s a very dangerous position to have a county that says no to wind energy that benefits from wind energy jobs. What message does it send to that large employer if we say wind turbines are not welcome in our county?”
“The subject isn’t over,” Teufel said, contending that last minute offers NextEra made to move some of its turbines and the economic benefits touted by the company were not adequately considered by the planning commission.
“The county commission can send it back (to the planning commission) for reconsideration of these other factors,” she said. “If more modifications can be made to the permit, to make it approvable, I encourage them to do that, rather than just deny the permit in its entirety.”
“We’re not going outside the process,” Teufel insisted. “I don’t think we’re asking anyone to consider new facts… We’re asking that the voices of Reno County businesses be heard.”
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