TYNDALL – Bon Homme County allegedly showed preferential treatment to a wind farm by reducing its building permit fees by $140,000, according to an outspoken opponent of the project.
The sPower renewable energy company will own and operate the $297 million wind farm in southeast South Dakota. The project will cover about 50,000 acres in Charles Mix, Bon Homme and Hutchinson counties.
Ed Van Gerpen of Avon met Tuesday with the Bon Homme County Commission. He criticized the commission’s decision earlier this year to charge the Prevailing Wind power project $50,000 for building permit fees. He noted, under the county’s fee structure, Prevailing Wind should have paid $190,000 in fees.
“I know three of you (commissioners) voted to give them this major break, and there wasn’t legal counsel there when you did it,” he said. “I want an explanation of why you gave sPower that major break.”
In a letter to the Press & Dakotan, Van Gerpen cited the roll call vote at the March 5, 2019, meeting. Commissioners Duane Bachmann, Russ Jelsma and Bruce Voigt voted in favor of the reduction, while Commissioners Mary Jo Bauder and John Hauck voted against it.
Wind Park construction manager Scott Creech provided the estimate of $190,000 for the full building permit fees, Van Gerpen said in his letter to the Press & Dakotan.
Creech was not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting.
The wind farm is permitted for 61 turbines and a maximum production of 219.6 megawatts. Creech has said the farm will actually construct 57 turbines. It is slated for completion next month, Creech has said. The turbines will be located generally north of Avon and southwest of Tripp.
Van Gerpen, a former state legislator and former county commissioner, has repeatedly objected to the wind power project not far from his hometown.
Van Gerpen asked for a spot on Tuesday’s County Commission agenda to discuss the building permit fees. He previously raised his objections in a letter to area newspapers, including the Press & Dakotan.
Van Gerpen referred to the standard building permit fee of $1 per $1,000. Everyone except sPower has paid that rate, he added.
“I went and got a list of all the building permits from this year, and for everybody, that’s what they paid (for a fee),” he said. “If something was $1.2 million, they paid $1,200. Now, you get to the structures from the wind farm and they get a dramatic decrease, a reduction.”
Creech asked for the reduced building permit fees, Jelsma said. The three commissioners voting for the reduction did so for a number of economic reasons, Jelsma added.
“We knew they were spending a pile of money (in the county),” Jelsma said.
“That’s not mentioned in the minutes. There’s nothing about that (factor),” Van Gerpen responded.
In response, Jelsma and Voigt pointed to the major economic benefits that sPower would bring to the county. The two commissioners said those benefits will far outweigh the reduced building permit fees.
“They spend way more than that ($140,000),” Jelsma said, referring to sPower’s investment in Bon Homme County.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” Van Gerpen responded, referring to what he considered a fairness issue.
As a matter of comparison, Voigt outlined other counties’ costs and benefits from the Prevailing Wind project. He noted not only sPower’s building permit fees but also its infrastructure improvements, particularly for roads.
• Hutchinson County received $250 in fees for five turbines, with the company improving two miles of highway.
• Charles Mix County is the site of 19 turbines. At first, Charles Mix County charges $5 per turbine and later raised it to $25 each. They received a total of $475, and the company improved 10 miles of road.
• Bon Homme County has received $50,000 in fees for 33 turbines, amounting to $1,515 per turbine. In addition, sPower has improved 22 miles of roads with the possibility of two more miles.
“We’re getting probably at least $2 million in road repairs or more,” Voigt said. “What they did to some of those roads should last 15 to 20 years.”
In addition, sPower has donated $15,000 to the Avon Fire Department and $20,000 to the new Bon Homme County 4-H building, Voigt said. The company has also donated money to the Scotland haunted house, he said.
Also, the company will create jobs, bringing 8-12 employees to the county, Voigt said.
Van Gerpen said the issue comes down to fairness, not the economic benefits of a particular project, when paying building permit fees.
A family member “didn’t ask for any special favors” when he sought a building permit, Van Gerpen said. Neither did the other applicants who paid the full building permit fee, he added.
“Most of the people who got these permits are Bon Homme County residents. Their children are going to school here, and they’re here to stay,” he said.
“With sPower, they’ll be gone. They’ve got offices in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, and you never see them here. They don’t spend anything toward the economy of the county.”
Van Gerpen said he has looked at the license plates of Prevailing Wind employees that are parked at the Avon office. The four plates come from North Dakota, North Carolina, Iowa and South Dakota (Hutchinson County).
In contrast, four Beethoven employees had four South Dakota plates: two from Yankton County, one from Minnehaha County and one from Hutchinson County, he added.
In addition, Van Gerpen contended sPower’s profits are taken out of state.
Bauder, who was elected to office in 2018, asked if the Bon Homme County commissioners had voted for the financial breaks because they feared companies wouldn’t set up the wind farm otherwise.
Jelsma said the commissioners believed Prevailing Wind was coming to Bon Homme County regardless of whether or not the company was provided with financial incentives.
“We pretty much knew they were coming. That wasn’t the issue,” he said. “When they built the first (Beethoven) wind towers, we did the same thing.”
Bauder noted the break given the wind farms has set a precedent.
“People are thinking, ‘Well, they did it for them, and now they can do it for us,’” she said.
Van Gerpen believes the commissioners’ action has created a slippery slope.
“You did set a precedent, so that if somebody comes in for a building permit and they only give you so much, you have to take it,” he said. “That’s what you did with sPower. All these people who paid the full amount were discriminated against.”
The county has considered placing a cap on building permit fees, Jelsma said. However, the commissioners haven’t taken formal action, he added.
“That’s the point. It hasn’t been done,” Van Gerpen said. “If you want to change the ordinance, then do it. But right now, you’ve got to follow it.”
The commissioners talked briefly about possible future changes, but Jelsma said the deal with sPower will stand.
“We did give them a break, and that’s the way we sit,” he said.