The final public hearing was held Wednesday evening for a highly-contested proposal to change Gage County’s wind regulations, effectively ending plans for a wind farm in the northern portion of the county.
The proposed amendment would increase setback requirements for commercial wind turbines from nonparticipating residences from 3/8 of a mile to one mile. Nonparticipating residents are those who do not have contracts in place with a wind company.
The amendment was proposed by Cortland-area resident Larry Allder in March 2019. It also includes 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, and was a key topic during the Gage County Board of Supervisors’ hearing Wednesday that more than 100 people attended. The meeting was held at the Hevelone Center at Beatrice High School to allow for social distancing. No action was taken following the hearing, and the board is expected to vote on the amendment at its next meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 9.
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 has been specifically about the project.
David Bargen, an attorney with Rembolt Ludke law firm representing a group of landowners in favor of extending the setbacks, discussed the size of turbines and how they’ve grown over the years, stressing the regulations need to also grow.
“These amendments would amend regulations regarding a structure that has no comparison in zoning code,” he said. “Wind turbines are industrial fixtures and height is not regulated at all in current zoning regulations. Information from NextEra says towers in northern Gage County can be 500 feet tall. That’s 100 feet taller than the Nebraska state capitol. That’s 200 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. It’s about the same height as the Washington Monument. Information from NextEra also indicates the diameter of the spinning rotors of these towers would be 416 feet across. That’s roughly twice the length and wingspan of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.”
Billy Wilkins, project manager with NextEra, said Wednesday the company already operates the Steele Flats wind farm in Gage County, and added that a one mile setback would be too prohibitive for wind energy and the increase would likely kill the proposed project in Gage County.
“The company wants to continue investments in Gage County,” he said. “The proposed text amendment would prevent this investment and arguably prevent other wind developers from investing in Gage County. Steele Flats wind already contributes $128,000 a year in property taxes. Gage Wind is estimated to contribute approximately $750,000 a year in property taxes.”
Elizabeth Shotkoski-Jurgens, who lives in the Blue Springs area and spoke during the public hearing, stressed that the County Board needs to also take decommissioning into consideration when making decisions regarding commercial wind energy.
“They’re coming down in 20-25 years,” she said. “Those things are extremely big. You’re talking about $1 million in today’s dollars, per tower, to take these things down. That’s a reality check. We’re in enough trouble in Gage County right now with the Beatrice 6. We need to be smart about this.”
The heavily debated amendment to the current wind regulations was previously approved by Gage County Planning and Zoning earlier this month with a 6-1 vote, sending it to the County Board for final approval.
Planning and Zoning administrator Lisa Wiegand said Wednesday the decision was not taken lightly by the commission.
“We as a commission continued to discuss and study our wind regulations throughout that timeline leading up to the hearing date,” she said. “This not only included research as an organized group, but also included commission members educating themselves and researching industry standards.”
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