A group of Gage County residents is one step closer to getting setbacks increased for commercial wind turbines after a proposal was approved by Gage County Planning and Zoning Thursday evening.
The proposal, which would increase setback requirements from nonparticipating residences from 3/8 to one mile, will now be considered by the Gage County Board of Supervisors for final approval. Nonparticipating residents are those who do not have contracts in place with a wind company.
The decision to recommend approving the change followed a six hour meeting Thursday, where 42 people provided five hours of testimony.
At the meeting, 24 people spoke in support of changing the wind regulations, 15 were in favor of keeping them as they are and three were neutral.
The meeting was held at the Hevelone Center at Beatrice High School to allow for more social distancing. Around 200 people attended the meeting.
The amendment was proposed by Cortland-area resident Larry Allder. It included changes to how decibel levels produced by turbines are calculated. Wording in the current regulations allows wind energy companies to conduct their own testing, which some think gives them an unfair advantage.
The setback increase has been the main sticking point of the amendment.
“As far as the setbacks go, we’re not trying to kill an energy,” Allder said. “We’re trying to put it in the proper place with a one-mile setback… We’re trying to protect the people of Gage County. There’s a lot of people here. There are a lot of Gage County residents here tonight to support this amendment.”
The commission ultimately voted 6-1 to approve recommending the County Board amend the wind regulations, with chairman Dennis Rosene casting the lone vote in opposition.
“We’ve heard a lot of things tonight both for and against,” said commission member Monte Murkle. “It seems like it should be really easy to make a decision, but a lot of folks stood up for and against, felt 100% confident in believing what they’re saying. Everything can’t be spot on correct so we’ve got to sort through that, and we will. Personally, I’m not thinking that the ⅜ mile is enough.”
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 wind farm in northern Gage County.
Much of the discussion Thursday was specifically about the project.
Billy Wilkins, project manager with NextEra, attended the meeting and discussed some of the benefits of wind energy.
“NextEra owns and operates three wind facilities in five counties across Nebraska and has invested approximately $461 million in the state,” he said. “Our first project in Nebraska was Steele Flats wind in southern Gage County and Jefferson County, which has been in operation since 2013. Only 12 of 44 wind turbines are in Gage County, but it contributes approximately $128,000 a year in property tax and will overall contribute approximately $3.8 million over the life of the project.”
He went on to say that a one mile setback would be too prohibitive for wind energy, and NextEra officials have previously stated during County Board meetings that the increase would likely kill the project in Gage County.
Closing the book on the project would be welcome news to the northern Gage County residents opposed to the wind farm being located there.
Rural Clatonia resident Emily Haxby presented the commission with a petition with 1,062 signatures from Gage County residents in favor of the amendment increasing setbacks.
“All of those residents want the ability to choose what they live by,” she said. “It is not right for a person or an entity to make decisions for an entire community. This amendment protects the health and welfare of the people in our county.”
Kelly Lenners, who lives near Pickrell, said a wind farm such as the one proposed by NextEra would be detrimental to agriculture.
“Even though the amendment isn’t about a special project, it pertains to the effects this particular project would have on our county,” she said. “The claim of industrial wind projects is that these facilities are financial windfalls for the community. Clearly, such an assertion is self-serving.”
Jeanelle Kunz said her family moved east of Pickrell four months ago, and doesn’t want to see that area industrialized.
“This is our beautiful dream of where we were going to set roots for our five babies,” she said. “I just feel so passionately. I just put in a huge garden and what they’re proposing is to put literally 20 turbines within miles, right where I look out to my beautiful land I just moved across the country for.”
Health effects, impact on property values, impact on animals and how the towers would be decommissioned were additional questions raised at the meeting in favor of increasing the setbacks.
Lancaster County officials previously adjusted their regulations to require setbacks of five times the height of the turbine in their county.
Sean Flowerday, commissioner for Lancaster County Board of Commissioners, attended Thursday’s meeting and cautioned Gage County Planning and Zoning members against excessive setbacks.
“You’re right at where you want to be to have a decent protection for quality of life, and at the same time can let the project continue,” he said. “…You’ve got a great developer wanting to come into your community and build something that’s going to generate $750,000 in tax revenue, and Lancaster County doesn’t. This same developer was looking at a very similar project in Lancaster County. We ended up at five times the height of the turbine, and the project moved on.”
With the amendment approved by planning and zoning, it will now be heard by the County Board for final approval. The board would typically hold a public hearing at its first available meeting, but given the large attendance a date for that hearing was not set as organizers will first secure a location.
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