Planning and Zoning business is returning to Gage County after a nearly three month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the debate over wind energy is picking up where it left off.
The County Board of Supervisors discussed planning issues during its Wednesday meeting, specifically concerning wind energy.
The topic is nothing new for the board, as a proposed amendment to change some of the county’s wind regulations proposed nearly 1 ½ years ago is still up for debate.
“There’s been so much time elapsed, for that to take a year I’m going to say is pathetic,” said County Board Chairman Erich Tiemann. “It makes me mad. It should not have taken a year. There’s no excuse for it.”
The amendment to the regulations was presented last March by Cortland-area resident Larry Allder, who attended Wednesday’s meeting and also expressed frustration that the process has taken so long.
Prairie Wind Watchers, the group spearheading the requested amendments, is focusing on specific changes it would like to see made by the county.
A primary concern is increasing current setback requirements that stipulate turbines must be 3/8 miles from residences. The group is asking that figure to be increased to one mile.
The group is also asking officials to make changes to how decibel levels are calculated.
Wording in the current regulations allows wind energy companies to conduct their own testing, which some think gives them an unfair advantage.
While the changes would apply to all future commercial turbines, the push for change has been largely driven by a proposal from NextEra Energy Resources to build a 50-turbine wind farm in northern Gage County, a roughly $225 million investment in the area.
David Bargen, an attorney with Rembolt Ludke law firm representing property owners in Gage County, said it’s time for county officials to reach a decision on the proposed changes.
“This has been on hold for almost a year and a half,” he said. “I think it’s time that it gets taken a look at.”
In March, the County Board voted to no longer accept special use permit applications, which NextEra will need before continuing with the project, due to the COVID-19 epidemic.
The board voted on Wednesday to again accept applications for special use permits, though stipulated it would still not accept applications for wind or solar projects.
David Levy, an attorney representing NextEra, said that decision unfairly singles out the company’s project.
“We have a right to file an application for a use that your zoning regulations allow,” he said. “You’re singling out one land use that is legal under state law and legal under Gage County law and saying, ‘We’re not going to let you apply for it.’ That’s not legal and it’s not right. It’s discrimination against one particular land use.”
“If you can’t give us two weeks to see if we can come a resolution on this then you need to file a lawsuit,” responded County Board member John Hill. “But I would hope you would give us two weeks to come to a resolution on this.”
Following the remark, the County Board agreed to consider another resolution at the July 15 meeting that would allow the county to again accept wind and solar special use permit applications.
Tiemann said the reason those type of permit applications were not initially approved to be accepted was because the county is still deciding how to handle the meetings.
Special use permits require a public hearing before being approved or denied. Most applications draw little opposition and only a few people in attendance.
Wind energy is a hot issue and hearings have drawn more than 100 people in the past. With social distancing in mind, the County Board is seeking a larger venue to hold the hearings to prevent overcrowding in the regular board room in the courthouse.