The Reno County Planning Commission agreed after about a 90-minute public hearing on Thursday to amend county zoning regulations on commercial wind developments.
A majority of the evening’s two dozen speakers asked the commission to adopt a 21-page draft document submitted by Reno County Citizens for Qualify of Life that included significant additions and modifications to current regulations.
At least two planning commissions, however, after the commission unanimously voted to proceed to make changes, voiced a desire that it be “more of a clean-up than a total rewrite.”
“We’re not here to start over again, but to clean it up, to provide clarity,” said Commissioner Bruce Buchanan.
“I support that too,” said Commissioner Harlan Macklin.
The commission then gave its consensus to a proposal from Chairman Russ Goertzen that a subcommittee consisting of himself, County Planner Mark Vonachen and Public Works director Don Brittain do the work on drafting the changes and bring it back to the full commission.
While Vonachen said there would be no specific timeline to do that, Brittain said “we’ll be aggressive about getting this to you. We’re not going to drag this out.”
It’s been 22 months since residents in southeast Reno County, where NextEra Energy proposed building a commercial wind farm, first asked county leaders to draft new regulations for Wind Energy Conversion Systems.
Whether to amend
Of Thursday night’s 24 speakers, who were allowed five minutes each to address the commission, just three supported the current regulations – Chamber President Debra Teufel, Siemens Gamesa plant manager Doug Fulton and Climate + Energy project executive director Dorothy Barnett.
All three contended that the rules were adequate and drafting more stringent regulations would send a message that Reno County is not “wind friendly.”
Barnett conceded, however, that the regulations did lack language on decommissioning, which she’d like to see included.
The board also received a petition with a reported 400 signatures asking that the regulations be modified.
“We didn’t find the regulations were very useful to us when we went through the process on NextEra,” noted Planning Commission member Lisa French, who chaired the board during the NextEra permit process and was the only member on the planning commission when the current regulations were drafted.
“They are less than the industry standard,” she noted. “NextEra used greater setbacks than the regulations we have.”
“One of the biggest issues is they’re not giving much guidance to developers either,” French said. “They don’t know. We have a conditional-use process we can make better or greater than is in the regulations. There is some protection there, but it’s pretty incomplete. There’s very little in the regulations that give guidance to anybody.”
“By amending them, we give both protection to people in Reno County and we give guidance to developers who come in,” French said. “It’s more assurance to developers what studies they need to provide, rather than go through the whole application process and then we put regulations in place they can’t meet or that takes a couple of more years to do when it could have been done.”
Primary issues addressed by the speakers seeking modification were setbacks – that is, how far away turbines have to be from property lines or homes of participating and nonparticipating landowners – as well as limits on sound levels and shadow flicker caused by spinning blades.
Several speakers asked that the rules require a minimum 3-mile setback from Cheney State Park or any other state or federal wildlife area.
“I looked back at the last CUP (NextEra’s conditional-use permit application) and there were 19 locations that infringed on this,” noted Susan Helton. “That was almost a quarter of the turbines in the last proposal.”
The setbacks would be not only for migrating whooping cranes, which need considerable distance to take off and land, and raptors, such as bald eagles that nest in the area, but for “the two-legged wildlife who enjoy the lake,” which has seen a record number of visitors in recent weeks.
Former Planning Commissioner Steve Westfahl offered a map to the board showing an example of impacts to properties under current and proposed property setbacks.
Even with the 2,000-foot setbacks proposed by NextEra – the current regulations require only 500-foot setbacks – properties on three sides of the site would have their ability to safely use their full property significantly infringed on in the example, Westfahl contended.
Asked what the “building safely” determination was based on, Westfahl said “there’s documented evidence a turbine 350 feet high can throw material up to 2,600 feet. The bigger the turbine gets, the faster they go and the farther they can throw.”
The submitted regulations call for a minimum set back of 10 ½ times the overall height of the turbine from the property line of a nonparticipating landowner that contains a residence, though a property owner can give written permission to build within 1.5 times the height of the turbine.
The turbines in the NextEra proposal were just under 300 feet tall, though the blades make the overall height almost 500 feet, so that would make the proposed distance 5,250 feet or just under a mile.
The group’s proposal would require setbacks of 2 miles from incorporated cities and schools and 5 miles from airports.
Resident Angela Mans told the commission it would be important to include language requiring the developer to guarantee no negative impact on property values or they will have to purchase the property, and that setbacks begin at property lines, rather than from building locations.
“More than 30 studies show a detailed analysis of 20 to 60 percent of property value is lost within the footprint of a wind farm,” she said. “If they (developers) believe there is no impact (on property values) than there should be no impact from a property value guarantee.”
Andy Helton addressed the issue of limits on noise. The current regs include none, though they do for other industrial uses and even special event permits, he noted.
NextEra proposed an average of 45 decibels measured inside a closed residence. The residents want an average of 35 decibels, not to exceed 45, and that measurements be taken annually at every home within two miles of a turbine.
“The only real plan for reducing noise from industrial wind is setbacks,” Helton said. “There’s nothing you can do after the fact. If a turbine goes up, it will generate noise. If Billy puts in a machine shop, he can insulate the building and not grind after 5 p.m. If you put up a turbine, it will generate noise if it is spinning.”
“We need to stop treating industrial wind like it’s a typical land use. It’s not,” he said. “They make noise and they make it potentially all day and night long. Farming shuts down at night and only operates a small portion of the year… The regulation we’re asking for doesn’t prevent putting up wind turbines. But the noise it generates could prevent someone from building a house there.”
Robin Wells addressed shadow flicker, a nuisance she said that is 100 percent preventable based on the placement of turbines.
“It shouldn’t be in the discussion,” she said. “If a landowner wants to sign off saying I’ll take 5 hours or an hour or whatever, they should be willing. But it should not be inflicted on anyone. It should be a choice to have shadow flicker on your house.”
Marty Westfahl reminded the board that the first several articles of the county’s zoning regulations relate to protecting the health, safety, and general welfare of the citizens and protecting and enhancing the value of properties.
“Because proposed commercial wind developments cover large geographic areas and effect numerous citizens, you cannot treat these vast systems as any other project confined to a few acres or affecting a few people,” Westfahl said. “These massive towers invade our land and sky.”
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