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County approves wind ordinance

Ten years after the original document was drafted, Morgan County has a new ordinance covering wind-farming operations.

Commissioners approved the document Monday, after a year of debate and revisions.

The board approved the ordinance with commissioners Ginny Fanning and Bill Meier voting in favor. Chairman Brad Zeller abstained to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest; he and his family own property in the Alexander area, where some of the proposed wind-farming activity is possible.

Changes made to the document worked to address concerns raised by the community throughout the process and clarify several questions and defining language, Zeller said.

“We feel this is a strong document,” he said.

With more than an hour of public comment – during which some speakers claimed the county has failed to act in the best interest of the county’s residents – tensions were high.

The ordinance takes effect immediately, providing outlines for any proposed wind farm projects, including one proposed by Apex Clean Energy that would involve the installation of 80 to 120 turbines.

Dusty Douglas, Regional Planning Commission director, said the new document provides increase protections for the decommissioning process, streamlines the document, updates road-use agreements, and includes provisions for updated technology as it develops in the future.

It also included a section on emergency response in different situations.

Several attending Monday’s county commission meeting spoke for or against the ordinance, with some of the major opposition being to setbacks – the minimum distance a turbine can be placed from a home, property line or other defining location. Many of those supporting the project stressed the positive economic impact it could have for the county and schools.

“We will never be able to appease everyone on both sides of the issue,” Zeller said.

Fanning said the county has spent more than a year researching the issues with the ordinance and continued to make changes to the ordinance leading up to the vote.

“I believe it’s a strong ordinance with many new safeguards that we previously did not have,” Fanning said.

Helen Humphreys, public engagement manager for Apex, said the company is excited to move forward with its project.

“With the final ordinance, we believe the county has struck the balance of ensuring all community members are protected, while keeping Morgan County open for business,” she said. “Furthermore, the county commissioners have drafted the new ordinance in a manner that will provide even greater local benefit to Morgan County residents … We commend the county commissioners for their careful and diligent review of these issues and for their approval of a tough but fair wind energy ordinance.”

Despite the year-long debate, some made a last-ditch argument for changes, citing what they feel are failures in the document. Others asked that the document be passed because they feel the project would benefit the county’s economy.

The new ordinance increases setbacks from 1,000 feet from a house’s foundation to 1,650 feet from the foundation of the home of a non-participating landowner and 1,320 feet from the foundation of the house of a participating landowner. There also is a setback of 1.1 times the height of the turbine from the property line.

“It’s disappointing,” said Mike Woodyard, who has been advocating for larger setbacks from the property line. “It’s a sad day when our county board refuses to recognize the rights of a property owner at the property line.”

While Woodyard said the ordinance takes a lot of steps in strengthening landowner protections, the lack of change to setbacks from the property line of a non-participating landowner is something he considers a failure.

“They basically have an easement to my bedroom window,” Woodyard said. “I think the setbacks cancel out all the other improvements to the document. Had they changed it to the property line instead of the foundation, it’d be one of the best ordinances in the state.”

Another contention with the ordinance is that it does not address the unincorporated area of Alexander, though Zeller said those issues would have to be addressed between Alexander’s officials and Apex.

Joana Ramsey presented a petition with 41 signatures from Alexander residents to the board, advocating for a 1-mile setback, but Ramsey said the board failed to respond to the plea.

“We asked for help. Those that signed the petition have heard nothing,” Ramsey said. “They felt defeated several weeks ago.”

While the ordinance addresses issues of turbines near incorporated areas of the county, unincorporated Alexander would not be covered by the document.

Apex representatives said during the public comment portion of the meeting that the company is committing to a half-mile setback from the village’s boundaries. While no official document has been created, the company will not include in its final project any turbines within that half-mile radius, officials said.

With the ordinance approved, Apex can begin planning the final locations before applying for permits for the project, Humphreys said.

“Now that the county has finalized a wind ordinance that establishes setbacks for wind turbines, we can proceed with our project design,” Humphreys said. “We hope to be ready to submit a permit application within the next few months.”