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Lancaster County’s rules governing turbines still floating in the wind

If the Lancaster County Board wants to loosen rules regulating wind farms hoping to build turbines here, members will do so without support of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission.

The six commissioners present Wednesday voted unanimously to recommend clarifying rules requiring a third party to perform any necessary noise studies but voted against changes recommended by the Planning Department.

Wednesday’s hearing was in response to a request from the County Board, which is seeking to make changes to wind farm requirements it adopted in 2019.

The county approved what was then the most restrictive setback requirements for wind farms in Nebraska – 1 mile from a participating property owner’s home – before reducing them to 5 times the height of the wind turbine or 2 times the height to the property line, whichever is greater. Since most turbines are about 500 feet tall, it makes the effective setback just less than half a mile.

In a Nov. 10 letter sent to the Planning Department, the board said that since those regulations were adopted, “it has become apparent that the resolution failed to strike an appropriate balance that would allow a viable path toward wind energy development.”

In the letter, it asked the Planning Department to consider changes to both setbacks and noise levels.

In response, the Planning Department recommended reducing the setback from a property that is not part of a project from 5 times the height of the turbines to 3½ times the height.

The department did not recommend changing the noise levels, however, as the city-county Health Department has not had time to do any studies that would show evidence to warrant a change.

Chris Schroeder, supervisor of the Health Department’s air-quality program, said that because of the coronavirus pandemic, “we just haven’t had the time to do the thorough research that we’ve done in the past.”

David Levy, an Omaha attorney who represents a number of renewable energy companies, said Lancaster County is “the most restrictive in Nebraska and one of the most restrictive in the Midwest” when it comes to noise regulations.

The levels the county has adopted allow up to 50 decibels on properties that are participating in a wind farm but only 37 decibels at night and 40 during the day on properties that aren’t part of the project.

Levy said those restrictions have “effectively zoned the industry out of the county.”

Greg Schwaninger, a landowner in the area where NextEra Energy Resources has expressed interest in locating a wind farm, said that without a change to the noise levels, the proposed setback changes “don’t mean anything.”

Opponents of the change, however, said Lancaster County does not have to have wind turbines spinning here to have access to green energy, as power companies can buy it from other providers.

“We can be green in other places,” said Mike Brown, who lives near Martell.

Other people who spoke in opposition to the change said they are worried about potential health issues and lowered property values associated with turbines, and that the setbacks and noise rules are necessary to ensure they are protected.

Several of them pointed out that unlike more rural counties, Lancaster County is relatively densely populated in some areas outside Lincoln, making it unfavorable for “industrial” wind operations.

“If it don’t fit, don’t force it,” said Larry Allder, who lives near Cortland.

Many opposed to the changes also said they felt like the proposals were being rushed through.

Some members of the Planning Commission also said they would have liked to have more time to make a decision.

Commissioner Tracy Edgerton said any decisions on changes should be deferred “until the county and the Health Department can vet what’s in front of them.”

NextEra is the only company that has publicly expressed interest in locating a wind farm in Lancaster County. The company’s plan also includes turbines in northern Gage County.

However, the Gage County Board in September voted to more than double its setback requirements for nonparticipating properties to 1 mile. This month, the county extended a moratorium on new wind farm permits until at least July 15.

That could complicate NextEra’s plans, or those of another company, even if Lancaster County makes changes.

Tom Beckius, who was one of the few commissioners who was OK with recommending approval of changes Wednesday, said the county needs to find a middle ground that offers protection to property owners while also allowing wind energy companies to be able to locate a project here.

“I think we do have missed opportunity here that I’d hate to see go away,” he said.

The proposal will now go to the County Board, which does not have to follow the Planning Commission’s recommendation.