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Moratorium on wind development is near end; motion to extend it dies

OSWEGO – Within minutes of Cole Proehl being sworn in as Third District Labette County commissioner Monday, he was asked to consider a motion that would have extended the year-long moratorium on wind energy development in the county.

Proehl is completing the remaining term of former Commissioner Doug Allen, who moved out of the Third District and gave up his seat. Allen had previously resigned, effective Nov. 6, but that was moot when he moved to a house across the street from the Third District boundary. Proehl is the only candidate on the Nov. 3 ballot for the Third District seat. Brian Kinzie is the only name on the general election ballot for the Second District commission seat. The new terms will begin Jan. 11.

County Clerk Gena Landis gave Proehl his oath of office mid-morning. Gov. Laura Kelly appointed Proehl to complete Allen’s term last week after the Labette County Republican Party sent her his name as Allen’s replacement. The Kansas Secretary of State’s Office signed the appointment form and mailed it to Proehl. Proehl’s parents drove the form to Oswego so their son could be sworn in and begin his duties.

After the swearing in, commissioners took a break then Commissioner Lonie Addis made a motion to extend the current moratorium on wind development. The moratorium will end Nov. 13 and it was in place to allow the commission to appoint a committee to study the issue and report back to them. The committee met in 2019 and in early 2020, but the meetings ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A German utility has expressed interest in developing a wind farm in Labette County. This interest sparked the moratorium discussion and the need for information, especially since Neosho County had a contentious development and approval process for the Neosho Ridge Wind project, which is still being built.

In Labette County, RWE is exploring development of a wind farm in the western half of the county. The development, if it moves forward, would be a couple of years in the future, but county commissioners wanted to be prepared and know the positives and pitfalls before then. RWE has since installed meteorological towers to study the wind resource in the area to be developed. The company has also filed lease agreements with the Register of Deeds Office.

Commissioner Fred Vail, who voted against the moratorium in 2019, said RWE wanted to negotiate with the commission on the development. So he thought the moratorium wasn’t needed.

Addis said extending the moratorium would give the committee more time to study if the pandemic ever eases up to allow meetings. The commission has two more meetings before the moratorium expires.

Vail didn’t second Addis’ motion.

Proehl asked if wind energy could start to build if the moratorium expires.

“Yes. There would be no restrictions. They could build whatever they choose,” Addis said.

County Counselor Brian Johnson said the committee is doing research to provide information to the commission. The moratorium allowed that to happen. He said decommissioning is a key component of the research. That also was an issue with some oil and gas leases in the county. When the companies left or dissolved, the equipment remained on land, along with pits and gas wells, that the landowners had to deal with. The Kansas Corporation Commission stepped in and helped with the cleanup.

Johnson said in Neosho County, the wind developer created agreements with the county that delayed discussion of decommissioning until a decade after the final project is closed. This raised questions for Labette County. For example, what if the company that made the agreement is out of the picture and sells interest to another company? Would the responsibility for decommissioning follow succeeding companies? Who would be stuck with the bill for decommissioning the turbines?

“That’s the worry. I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen. But that’s the worry,” Johnson said.

Vail said he was concerned that the committee would move the county toward zoning, which he opposes. He said if Proehl needed more time, Addis could make his motion at one of the next two meetings.

“I just don’t want it to slide,” Addis said.

Proehl said he has concerns with damage to county roads, decommissioning and property setbacks from turbines.

“But I am not ready to move to another six-month moratorium at this point,” Proehl said.

He said he wanted time so he could make a more well-informed decision.

“No hard feelings. We’ll move on,” Addis said.