After 4½ hours and 50 speakers, the Reno County Planning Commission recessed its public hearing on proposed wind energy regulations Thursday night to a date in mid-October.
When the hearing resumes 4:30 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Reno County Public Works Building; however, no additional public comment will be taken. The board voted to close the public comment portion of the hearing after the last speaker concluded his comments at 8:51 p.m.
While a number of speakers thanked and praised the Planning Commission for its efforts, no one said they were satisfied with the proposal and several were quite angry after learning the board agreed to accept changes to the proposal that were made at the start of the meeting.
Several speakers not present for the 4:30 p.m. start asked that the public comment portion be continued, to allow them to see the changes in writing before addressing the board.
Wayne Mans challenged the legality of the hearing since what was being considered was not what had been published on the county’s website.
After a brief consultation with the county counselor, however, Chairman Russ Goertzen said they would proceed since the changes were primarily “superficial” or “to the advantage of a greater safety mindset.”
In the proposed regulations previously approved by the board to go to public comment, the only specific setback was the height of a turbine plus 50 feet from property lines and road rights-of-way, with the distance of a turbine from a residence to be determined primarily by limits on noise and shadow flicker.
Before the public comments opened Thursday, county planner Mark Vonachen proposed setting a minimum 1,500-foot setback from both participating and non-participating buildings. Vonachen did not explain why he was recommending the change or what it was based on, other than “comments received from the public and the discussion last month.”
He also proposed changing the word “shall” at several locations in the document to “may,” contending the authority rested with the Reno County Commission on what should be included in the developer’s agreement, including road maintenance and decommissioning requirements.
Vonachen did suggest adding a requirement any noise studies be conducted in winter when ambient noise from nature and agricultural machinery would be less.
Forty-five of the speakers asked for more stringent or more detailed regulations, including a half-dozen who asked for a minimum setback of at least 2,500 feet and a few who wanted it further.
The 2,500 feet was a requirement NextEra Energy agreed to for development in neighboring Pratt County, but which company officials said during hearings on its Reno County conditional-use permit application would not work with that application.
A couple of speakers detailed setbacks that turbine manufacturers set which are greater than proposed, with resident Jane Tolin noting that Vesta workers had to wear hardhats when within 1,300 feet of a turbine and “not to linger within 1,620 feet when a turbine is operating unless absolutely necessary and, in the case of thunder, 3,280 feet.’”
Matt Amos asked that the setback be based on a multiple of the turbine’s height, since they continue to become ever larger, suggesting a multiple of least five.
Using a child’s plastic basketball to describe 5- and 10-pound blocks of ice that could be thrown from the tip of a blade, Clint Luttgeharm, who identified himself as a licensed engineer, described the impact it could have, traveling at close to 200 mph, at various distances as determined by setbacks.
In several cases, Luttgeharm said, the debris would penetrate a FEMA-approved storm shelter.
Only one person, industry lobbyist Dorothy Barnett, asked that the regulations be lessened – on both wind and noise limits – contending they were more stringent than on any other wind farm in the state. She called information presented by other speakers “a lot of misinformation” gleaned “from the internet.”
Four others spoke in support of wind energy, including Hutchinson / Reno County Chamber President Debra Teufel, but without directly addressing the regulations being considered or expressing support or opposition to them.
Besides requesting specific, larger setbacks, numerous speakers expressed concern that the regulations were not detailed enough to protect them, since they outlined no process for determining or appealing violations by the developer of noise and shadow flicker maximums, or set out penalties for violations.
“All parties need to know what they’ll be accountable to and what the penalties are,” Tolin said. “‘Timely’ as a measure can be 60 days or 90, or a year or five years or ‘take your sweet time in solving these issues.’ A failure to create explicit language creates problems, including future lawsuits.”
While Barnett suggested noise levels be raised to 50 decibels and shadow flicker of 30 hours a year be allowed, others thought the proposed annualized maximum of 40 decibels should be a flat maximum of 35 or 40 dB, and that any shadow flicker was too much.
If a turbine is shut down part of a day, noted resident Kristy Horsch, it could run at 80 dB the other part and meet the regulation. An annualized rate is also very hard to monitor and regulate, she said.
Drew Tallman recalled the statements of former Reno County Health Department director Nick Baldetti during the NextEra application hearing that annoyance can cause “indirect health impacts that could not be overlooked, including stress, anxiety and depression.”
European studies on wind, Tallman said, showed “annoyance begins at 35 to 40 decibels.”
At least four people concerned about airports, particularly the Sunflower Glider Port at the Hutchinson Industrial Air Base, contended the proposed private airport setbacks were insufficient and were dangerous, particularly for young or inexperienced pilots they train at the facility.
They needed to consider not only the height of the towers, but turbulence created by them, they noted, and at least one of the speakers was critical of the subcommittee that drafted the proposed regs for not seeking out professionals to assist.
It was repeatedly noted that the point of the regulations was to protect the rights, health and safety of Reno County landowners, not, as some speakers said, multi-billion dollar multinational corporations.
“This board is not claiming its responsibility,” said Esther Egli. “When the regulations fall short, the responsibility is in the hands of us landowners. When a situation arises that creates a conflict, our only choice is to sue. All the liability is placed on the landowner and if I want compensation of any kind, I have to sue my neighbors… You’re protecting a big corporation from the community it is coming into. You’re taking the stone from David and giving it Goliath.”
The planning commissioners were sent an invitation to visit a home in Pratt located some 2,500 feet from a turbine. One speaker suggested they go there and pull up a rocking chair and contemplate how that would change their quiet country life, not for a day, but for decades.
With COVID-19, life has changed dramatically, said Lynelle Horsch, and people are now confined to those homes.
“Can you imagine the people in those homes, having to listen to the sound, the shadow flicker,” she said. “People are working from home, children are going to school from home. If our setbacks aren’t enough, children will be hearing these sounds 24/7… Go somewhere and listen to a turbine and think about what (has been) said. We don’t know what the future holds. But our homes are our safest place. Please, protect our property. Protect our homes. Protect our children.”
“Zoning is to protect land use, to protect property values,” Kristy Horsch said. “That does not change because a wind developer waltzed into town… The landowners are the ones that need protection, not the wind industry.”
‘Won’t go away’
“You can placate the industry and you’ll be given another subpar CUP and all that comes with that,” Horsch said. “Or you can compromise with the community. Require proper sizing and watch Reno County flourish with the wind industry. But you cannot allow it if it is not properly sized. I implore you, please try again. Decide setbacks on the safest distance, research the distance from health requirements. Don’t stop now. Do the whole thing right.”
Former planning commissioner Steven Westfahl suggested the planning commission or its subcommittee sit down with representatives of Citizens of Reno County for Quality of Life “to finalize this, so we’re not fighting each other.”
“If you push us in a corner and want us to fight, we will,” he said. “We won’t go away.”
Commission Vice-Chair Lisa French, noting the board had “received a fair amount of information we’ve not had a chance to read,” suggested board members make a list of things they feel need addressed and send it to Vonachen, and that they seek advice on language, particularly on airport setbacks.
“It would be helpful to make things clearer and to get it right,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever agree on setbacks, but we can look at again. At most, we need a justified basis for noise and flicker and setbacks.”
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