Wind is dead in Henry County… or maybe it’s not.
Lawyers were still trying to figure out Wednesday morning what exactly happened Tuesday night when the Henry County Planning Commission failed to either approve or deny a wind farm permit request.
The parking lots at New Castle Middle School and Bundy Auditorium were close to capacity Tuesday evening. It wasn’t for back-to-school night or a special concert, though. Hundreds of people had shown up, instead, for a government meeting.
The Henry County Planning Commission moved their regular July meeting to Bundy Auditorium in anticipation of the large crowd.
The single agenda item: A permit request from Calpine Corporation to build 38 turbines in northwest Henry County for the Big Blue River Wind Farm.
There was also an American Sign Language (ASL) translater on-stage beside planning commission members, and several uniformed sheriff’s deputies posted around the auditorium.
Some attendees chose to wear black shirts to show their united protest of the proposed wind farm.
Other groups sat together wearing blue shirts supporting the project or orange shirts that drew attention to potential construction jobs a wind farm could bring to Henry County. More than a few caught themselves looking at their own attire and wondering which side of the argument they might accidentally be representing.
Tuesday’s planning commission meeting was to consider a commission approved use (CAU) request from Calpine to build a wind farm in and around Harrison Township.
Derek Rieman, director of development at Calpine, and the Calpine team were given one hour Tuesday to present their application to the planning commission.
Rieman said Calpine began looking at Henry County in 2015 after performing “desktop studies” to find an appropriate location for a wind energy project.
Henry County had sufficient wind energy, as well as existing transmission lines, Rieman said. The county also had a wind energy conversion system (WECS) ordinance in place that Calpine could follow while preparing the project.
The original project was for 80-100 turbines.
Rieman said Calpine ultimately signed 88 long-term wind energy leases that covered more than 17,000 acres across six townships.
Rieman told the planning commission Calpine adjusted the project area after receiving feedback from the community.
“We made a general commitment to reduce the project size we had originally planned to a northern border of US (Hwy) 36. Prior to that, we had originally been interested in locating the project north all the way up to the Delaware County line,” Rieman said. “In an effort to compromise and appease folks in the area, we made that adjustment.”
While Calpine was making changes to wind farm plans, so too was Henry County. The Henry County Commissioners approved a new WECS ordinance in December 2018.
“We went through great lengths in order to abide by the new provisions in the ordinance,” Rieman said. “Given that new requirements, our project was reduced from project 80-100 turbines to, now, up to 38 turbines.”
Several people from the Calpine team were also at Tuesday’s meeting to answer any questions about specific technical reports included in the CAU packet.
One of Calpine’s attorneys, Jeffrey Bennett from Bingham Greenebaum Doll, closed the presentation to the planning commission.
“We believe that the application as submitted meets all of the statutory criteria for commission approved use under the Henry County ordinance,” Bennett said, “and we respectfully ask that the commission approved use be granted.”
Planning Commission President Ed Yanos allowed members of the planning commission to ask any questions they might have before opening the public hearing to comments from the audience.
Planning Commission member Dale Cole asked for clarification on why Calpine chose Henry County. Rieman reiterated his points that wind in the area made the idea commercially viable, as did the prior existence of high voltage transmission lines.
Cole then asked if the proposed wind farm could have any effect on underground water. Rieman responded that the construction process would not include any blasting to install tower foundations.
Many people spoke up for the audience saying Rieman had not answered Cole’s question. Cole didn’t ask for clarification.
Cole also asked about fire training and ice accumulation on turbine blades. Rieman said training would be available and sensors in the turbines would be designed to stop the blades if ice was detected.
Planning Commission member Kenon Gray then questioned Rieman and the Calpine team for 15 minutes about their submitted studies and the safety of industrial wind turbines.
Gray asked Rieman if any baseline real estate studies had been completed in Henry County to determine if property values were being affected by the proposed wind farm or to show if values in the future would be affected by the construction of turbines.
The Calpine report did not include Henry County. It focused on Tipton, Madison, White and Benton Counties, where turbines already exist.
Gray cited the study “Values in the Wind: A Hedonic Analysis of Wind Power Facilities” by Martin D. Heintzelman and Carrie M. Tuttle of 11,331 properties near wind turbines in northern New York State.
According to that study’s authors, “We find that nearby wind facilities significantly reduce property values in two of the three counties studied. These results indicate that existing compensation to local homeowners/communities may not be sufficient to prevent a loss of property values.”
The Calpine team indicated they had not read that study.
Gray also raised concerns that the Calpine project was within four-mile “buffer zones” several Henry County communities instituted last year.
“Is there any reason that the four-mile safety barrier made legal under ‘Home Rule,’ and grandfathered and supported by Senate Bill 535, adopted by the town boards of Cadiz, Kennard, Mt. Summit and Sulphur Springs and Greensboro have been totally ignored?” Gray asked.
Bennett said there is currently litigation to figure out if Indiana towns can make zoning decisions which are normally under the authority of their county leaders.
“It’ll certainly be sorted out one way or the other by a judge and by parties looking at those matters as they go forward,” Bennett said. “I would simply submit your Henry County zoning ordinance gives us a procedure we are to follow and invests in this body (the planning commission) the right and ability to make a determination on commission approved use.”
Gray continued to question Rieman about the type and quality of studies submitted as support for the wind farm project.
Gray said he was taught in his doctorate program at Ball State to check research paper funding as a way to check for bias.
“You gave three studies. One of them is paid for by a renewable energy concern in Ontario,” Gray said. “If you say that’s not bias, I don’t know what is.”
Gray received a standing ovation from the audience after his questions and comments.
A man in the front row named Lee Walls, from Madison County, remarked, “I wish someone would have fought like that for us.”
The entire public meeting spanned more than four hours and included comments in support of the wind farm project and comments opposing it. Those sections of the meeting will be covered in other stories in today’s paper.
Calpine was given an opportunity to provide final remarks and the planning commission had another chance for questions before any official deliberation took place.
Matt Price, another attorney from Bingham Greenebaum Doll, argued that the “home rule” buffer zones didn’t override Henry County’s rules.
Gray asked for clarification if these 38 turbines are the only ones Henry County residents should expect, or if the project might have other phases in the future.
“At this time, we’re solely focused on the application before the planning commission,” Rieman said.
People in the audience again accused Rieman of not answering the question.
Gray also pointed out that, according to the site plan map, one of the proposed towers appeared to be closer to Shenandoah High School than was allowed by the Henry County WECS ordinance. He asked the Calpine team if Shenandoah had filed a waiver allowing the closer setback.
“Shenandoah High School has not filed a waiver,” Rieman said.
Rieman pointed out that a private engineering consulting firm hired by Henry County Planning Commission had declared CAU application “complete and compliant with all the setback requirements in the ordinance.”
Gray said his main concern with the wind farm request was actually from the mission statement of the planning commission, “to ensure the health and safety of its citizens.”
Gray pointed to the studies he had found supporting the claims that wind turbines cause negative health affects.
“If this panel wishes to ignore that, then they are just listening to one side of the issue and ignoring the citizens of Henry County,” Gray said.
After a brief break, the planning commission was given the opportunity to deliberate amongst themselves and take possible action on the CAU request.
Planning Commission member Olene Veach was not present Tuesday and did not participate in any discussion or vote about the CAU due to a declared conflict of interest. Veach has a signed lease with Big Blue River Wind Farm.
The planning commission would need five votes – the majority of the nine-member board – in order to definitively approve or deny the CAU request, even without Veach present.
Any CAU request has to pass a three-question test. The first two questions passed 6-2, with Gray and Larry Brayden voting no.
When Zoning Administrator Darrin Jacobs called the final roll call, the vote was split 4-4.
Planning Commission members Rachel Clark, Justin Curley, Dan Roach and Ed Yanos voted yes.
Planning Commission members Kenon Gray, Larry Brayden, Dale Cole and Tom Green vote no.
“The application is not approved because it did not receive the five required votes,” Jacobs said.
Many audience members took to their feet for celebratory cheers, whistles and shouts.
The meeting adjourned shortly thereafter.
Because the CAU was neither approved nor denied, the process is in a murky legal area.
“I would like to thank the planning commission members for their patience and dedication to serving Henry County,” said Planning Commission President Ed Yanos Wednesday. “Not many people will give the hours it takes and withstand the pressure that the wind issue place on them. And it is tough on them not having the issue resolved, one way or the other.”
The planning commission had similar situations come up with split-votes on CAU extension requests from two other proposed wind farm projects in May 2017. Those projects were for the southern part of Henry County
In those cases, the initial CAUs had already been granted and extended one time. The planning commission voted 4-3 on the second extension requests.
However, because they did not receive the required five votes, the CAU extension were considered “not approved” until a later meeting.
The Henry County Planning Commission denied a one-year extension July 20, 2017, for the CAU request from both NextEra Energy Inc. and its West Fork Wind Project and Apex Clean Energy and its Flat Rock Wind Project.
At that point, both CAUs officially expired.
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