WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – West Lafayette, agitated that the home of Purdue University was being linked to a new ban on wind farms across Tippecanoe County, took a hard pass Monday night.
City council members admitted that the vote largely symbolic. The city has little ground that could accommodate the sort of 300- to 600-foot wind turbines recently outlawed in Tippecanoe County’s zoning code. And even if the city did have enough open space, the height of a wind turbine wouldn’t fly that close to the Purdue Airport on the west edge of the city, given Federal Aviation Administration limits.
But city council members objected to West Lafayette’s name being associated with the ban, voting 7-0 Monday night to keep the zoning ordinance out of the city code.
“For the city of West Lafayette, we have nothing to gain, everything to lose by including this in our city code,” said Nick DeBoer, a Democrat who represents District 1. “We don’t want the headlines to read, ‘City of Purdue University bans wind energy,’ right? There’s no upside in a PR aspect for us. There’s no upside in us adopting this amendment.”
Jon Jones, a Republican from the campus-heavy District 3, said: “It’s definitely an issue where framing of it is important. And I do not want to cast a vote against renewable energy.”
West Lafayette’s vote followed a study finished in April by the Tippecanoe County Area Plan Commission, the body that offers the first review of zoning and land use issues for Lafayette, West Lafayette, Tippecanoe County and the towns of Dayton, Battle Ground and Clarks Hill.
Over the objections of environmentalists, the APC recommended, on an 11-4 vote, to essentially ban all wind turbines taller than 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 would shut out commercial turbines, which can range from 300 feet to as much as 600 feet, for newer models.
(For frame of reference, Rise at Chauncey, a 16-story building going up at State Street and Chauncey Avenue will top out at 168 feet, just under FAA height restrictions.)
Tippecanoe County, next door to large wind farms in Benton and White counties, already made it difficult for large turbines, with restrictions set in 2007 that demanded setbacks of 750 feet from neighboring properties without turbines and at least 1,200 feet from dwellings.
A group of residents in southern Tippecanoe County, primarily near the Montgomery County line, started the charge for the ban on taller turbines in 2018, arguing that wind farms belonged in more rural counties. At the time, Invenergy, a wind energy firm, had been working to sign land leases in Tippecanoe County. Residents also argued that large wind farms would drive down property values of those land owners who didn’t sign leases from companies looking to come into Tippecanoe County. They framed their argument: This wasn’t a vote against sustainable energy; it was an issue of proper placement of power plants.
Environmentalists, at the time, blasted the APC, warning that the county was moving in the opposite direction than it should at a time when alternative energy sources needed to be welcomed, not shunned. Farmers looking to lease ground to wind energy companies weren’t happy, either.
They repeated that criticism as Tippecanoe County commissioners, in May, voted 3-0 to adopt the ban for unincorporated land in the county. At the time, commissioner Tom Murtaugh maintained that the county risked hamstringing growth in the county by tying up ground with long-term leases on wind turbines.
“It’s irresponsible to tie up 30,000 acres for decades in a county that is growing the way we are,” Murtaugh said May 6, the day the county commissioners adopted the ban.
The Lafayette City Council voted 6-1 for the ban on May 6, according to city records. Since then, the Battle Ground Town Board also voted in favor. Dayton and Clarks Hill votes hadn’t been received by the APC office as of Tuesday, according to Sallie Fahey, APC executive director. Each city and town had 90 days to consider the ban.
West Lafayette’s vote did not negate the ban in other parts of the county, Fahey said. (West Lafayette also took a pass a few years ago on a zoning ordinance change that regulated rental homes, such as Airbnb offerings.) That was noted Monday by West Lafayette City Council members.
“The discomfort is that I don’t think anyone on this council wants to say no to wind mills,” Mayor John Dennis, a Republican, said.
Council President Peter Bunder, a Democrat representing District 2, criticized the APC and the county for not coming up with a more nuanced approach. He likened it to West Lafayette’s recent wrangling over e-scooters near campus – another front in the battle over sustainable energy.
“For those of us who sat through the scooter debates, we knew there were many concerned citizens who wanted us to ban scooters,” Bunder said. “There also were many concerned citizens who wanted to use scooters for recreation or transportation. So, instead, we laboriously crafted a scooter ordinance that we ended up with, and there will be some scooters in West Lafayette. I think that would have been a better way to proceed on the county level.”
Bunder said he felt for farmers and land owners who lived far from those pushing for the ban.
“If I represented the farmers at West (County Road) 900 North … and I could look across into the Benton County fields and see a wind farm and know that I can’t make that kind of money because the county has said so,” Bunder said, “I would be annoyed.”
A group of West Lafayette High School students who recently organized the West Lafayette Global Climate Strike, tied to the student-led School Strike for Climate movement, complimented council members for speaking against the ban.
“Obviously, you guys are open to renewable energy, and if you do vote on the wind ordinance, you’re unwilling to vote for it,” said Annabel Prokopy, who will be a West Lafayette sophomore this fall and who helped organize the climate strike.
DeBoer said he understood the arguments at the county level, even if he didn’t agree with them. But he said it was easy to separate the city from the county on this one.
“As we stare down the prospect of burning this planet down, I really don’t want a legacy of mine, when leaving here, is we adopted an ordinance that we banned wind energy during my tenure,” DeBoer said. “I think it would be a bad look and a real shame for all of us if we did that.”